AG’s office got Flint complaints a year before probe
Lansing – Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office received at least 15 complaints addressing water quality concerns in Flint — some sent a year before Schuette announced a criminal investigation into the lead contamination crisis, according to documents shared with The Detroit News.
Between April 1, 2014, and Dec. 31, 2015, 14 people contacted the Attorney General’s Office addressing Flint water concerns, according to records first obtained by the Michigan Information & Research Service. The residents couldn’t be identified because their names were blacked out.
A handful of people sent complaints on Jan. 29, 2015 — a year before Schuette announced an investigation into the matter, and eight months before Genesee County issued a health warning about Flint’s drinking water. Six complaints were sent between Jan. 29, 2015, and April 9, 2015.
Flint activist Rhonda Chisum-Kelso shared a 15th complaint with The Detroit News that wasn’t included in the original Freedom of Information Act request, which she sent on Feb. 25, 2015.
In the complaint she wrote that her “civil rights are being violated by local government servicing substandard water supply from the Flint River while surrounding county residents still receive Lake Huron Water from Detroit.”
Others complained to Schuette’s office about a bad smell and water discoloration or about their high monthly water bills coupled with suspicions that the water was unsafe.
Many Flint residents also complained to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality about the water’s smell and color in 2014 and 2015. Lead leached into the city’s water supply after the failure to apply corrosion control chemicals after switching to the Flint River for municipal water.
The Attorney General’s Office receives about 9,000 contacts every year, said Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely.
“No attorney general — not (Jennifer) Granholm, (Frank) Kelley, (Mike) Cox or Schuette — is able to read the thousands of complaints that come to the office,” Bitely wrote in an email. “As consumer complaints come into the Department of Attorney General, each complaint is reviewed and routed to the correct division where they work very hard to respond to each and every contact from Michigan citizens. Sometimes we are empowered to help and sometimes we can only offer guidance.”
Bitely said in this case, too, the appropriate workers contacted staff at the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, which is responsible for overseeing Flint’s water quality.
Gov. Rick Snyder has said he did not know about the lead contamination until early October 2015.
Schuette’s office also became aware of the public health crisis in Flint in late 2015, Bitely said. It then gathered information to begin a criminal investigation that led most recently to criminal charges filed against six current and former employees at the state’s DEQ and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Schuette alleged that public officials withheld information about lead poisoning from the public. In total, the attorney general’s criminal investigation so far has resulted in charges against nine individuals.
The Attorney General’s Office had no immediate comment on why Chisum-Kelso’s complaint wasn’t included in the open records request.
Chisum-Kelso said she believes the government doesn’t care about people in Flint. She is disabled and said she has a 13-year-old daughter with a mental disability.
“We’ve already been left for dead ... declared a permanent underclass by the government,” Chisum-Kelso said. “We’re aware of what people think of us.”
Snyder had Flint’s water system reconnected to the Detroit water system in early October 2015 and declared a state emergency on Jan. 5. The federal state of emergency in Flint ended Sunday.
A spokesman for Snyder’s office, Ari Adler, did not comment on how Schuette’s office handled the complaints or whether it acted soon enough.
“How the attorney general handles complaints is completely up to the attorney general,” Adler said.
“When you look at that time period, that was back when state officials were still reporting to the Governor’s Office that the water quality was not impacted by lead and then later we found that was not the case, so we have reacted accordingly.”
House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, an Auburn Hills Democrat who has called on Snyder to resign because of the Flint water crisis, said the latest record disclosure shows that Flint residents were being ignored.
“Well, it confirms what we’ve known for a very long time now, which is that the general public, health professionals, and Democratic legislators were sounding the alarm about the Flint water to the highest levels of the executive branch of government and unfortunately were being ignored,” Greimel said.
On Jan. 29, 2015, one Flint resident wrote to Schuette’s office that the “water smells and is discolored.” He or she said tap water was only used to wash clothes and shower, and wasn’t even given to the resident’s dog, although officials had not yet acknowledged a lead contamination problem.
“We have unsafe water in the city of Flint,” another resident wrote to Schuette’s office in January, 2015. “Our bills are the highest in the U.S. and we can not drink the water.”
Another person in April of 2015 wrote about the water being undrinkable and said “my pets won’t even drink the water” and that it had caused tooth decay, while others urged a criminal investigation.
“Lead poisoning is irreversible, causes brain damage, learning disabilities, and (is) especially harmful to growing children,” someone who identified themselves as a nurse wrote to Schuette’s office September 29, 2015. “I am shocked and appalled at this situation, and all the interviews I have heard thus are full of finger pointing, and no accountability.”
State Rep. Sheldon Neeley, a Flint Democrat, doesn’t bash Schuette for how his office handled the situation. He said they were perhaps late to begin their investigation, but he’s happy the office is involved now.
“The residents of the community inside the city of Flint knew that there was a problem early on,” he said. “They spoke to every level of government whether it be municipal, state or federal.”