Emails: Wide support on Flint switch from Detroit water

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

It’s viewed by many as the first in a string of bad moves that set Flint on its course toward nearly two years of water contamination and public health fears.

But at the time the city officially opted to part ways with Detroit’s water system, many of the high-level players in the decision-making process were on board with the idea.

Early in 2013, with Flint under the control of an emergency manager, the city faced the decision of separating from its longtime water supplier and striking out on a new venture with other local city and county governments. If it could land Flint, the Karegnondi Water Authority would be in a position to build its own water line to Lake Huron and have local control over its water destiny.

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New documents released by the state of Michigan this week show nearly everyone not linked with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department approved of the split. Those communications also offer some new light on moves behind the scenes to determine where Flint would get its water while the Karegnondi project was under construction.

An April 2013 letter from Flint Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz to Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr shows the financial reasoning behind the northern city’s breakaway. Kurtz took issue with how DWSD officials had portrayed the costs of the Karegnondi project to Flint residents over 30 years.

“The one estimate is off by at least $800 million and perhaps by as much as $1 billion over that time-frame,” Kurtz wrote. He added that DWSD’s offer to keep Flint did not include needed capital improvement costs — thereby giving the illusion of savings.

“If these unaccounted for capital costs were to be calculated and added to the 30-year Flint and (Genesee County) cost of water estimates, the DWSD offer becomes one in which the savings swing far to the advantage of the Karegnondi Water Authority,” Kurtz added.

Andy Dillon, Michigan’s treasurer at the time, needed to approve the jump to Karegnondi as well. He had been opposed to the move early on but was eventually swayed despite the recommendations of a state-hired consulting firm that recommended Flint remain with DWSD.

That firm, Detroit-based Tucker, Young, Jackson, Tull Inc. had an apparent conflict of interest Dillon was unwilling to ignore. Eventually, Dillon and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant would see Karegnondi as the better option for Flint.

“(Tucker Young’s) largest customer was the DWSD and DWSD did not like the KWA project,” Dillon wrote in notes included with this week’s released documents. “We didn’t assume that factored into (Tucker Young’s) findings, but it was on our radar. We didn’t believe the DEQ had any agenda so their conclusion together with (Tucker Young’s) reliance on some flawed assumptions, led us to side (with) the DEQ’s opinion.”

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Flint city council members voted in March 2013 to join Karegnondi, but new communications released this week indicate other officials had reached that conclusion far earlier. An Oct. 31, 2012, letter from Gerald Ambrose, Flint’s finance director, indicated his number crunching had resulted in Karegnondi appearing to be the better option.

“Based on the assumptions in this comparison, the annual projected cost of purchasing water for the City of Flint is 15 percent or $2.6 million LESS using the KWA option in the first year of operation, increasing to27 percent or $6.1 million LESS in the fifth year of operation,” he wrote.

Despite the numbers, there were attempts at the highest levels to bring Flint and DWSD together late in game. But negotiations between Flint and and DWSD officials may have been burdened by a history of mistrust and a deal was never reached.

On March 29, 2013, Dennis Muchmore, Snyder’s chief of staff, sent an email addressing the potential for the two sides to reach a deal.

“Both Dan (Wyant) and Andy (Dillon) believe that the discussions held in the past with DWSD and Flint have been contentious and not fruitful...,” wrote Muchmore, anticipating the city would submit its breakaway plan to Dillon. “...we will inform DWSD that this is happening and if they want to make a last attempt they should do so during the period of time that Andy is deliberating on his counter signature. Dan (Wyant) does not believe that DWSD has been straight and doesn’t think they will offer anything and Andy concurs.”

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With so many opting to support Flint’s split with DWSD, the question soon became where the city would get its water while waiting for Karegnondi’s system to get up and running. An interim deal with DWSD failed to materialize — something that likely came as little surprise to Snyder’s cabinet members.

Muchmore closed his email writing: “Under any circumstances Flint will have to deal with DWSD on the present delivery system and that may create some negotiations but it’s doubtful they will be significant. We will encourage DWSD to make an attempt. We did call them together as recently as November to negotiate and those discussions were not successful. Andy and Dan will make one last effort.”

That essentially left Flint with the option of drawing water from its river and servicing its own water in the interim. And the state’s failure in Flint to require corrosion control treatments preventing lead contamination after the April 2014 switch is believed to be a key factor in the city’s crisis.

Almost two years afterward, people still want to know who made the final decision to go to the river.

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A September 2015 email between members of the governor’s staff show state officials wanted the responsibility to fall on local government and not on Snyder’s appointed emergency manager.

“I know we’re being (Relentless Positive Action) and careful, but can I use this to point out that the emergency manager took the action following an 8-1 vote of the Flint City Council and the recommendation from the mayor — and that the (emergency manager) was following the wishes of the local leaders?” asked Snyder spokesman Dave Murray in an email to then-Communications Director Jarrod Agen discussing media interview strategy.

Agen responded: “I think it’s perfectly fair to say the emergency manager took the action following an 8-1 vote of the Flint City Council and the recommendation from the mayor.”

The Karegnondi system, meanwhile, is expected to come online later this year. Despite this, officials who oversee Detroit’s water system — now known as the Great Lakes Water Authority — have said they would welcome the opportunity to contract with Flint in a long-term agreement. Flint hooked back into Detroit’s system in October 2015 following the lead concerns.


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