Flint crisis response delayed for months

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

The governor’s top aide said as early as July that Flint residents were “basically getting blown off by us” in the state’s response to lead contamination problems, according to internal Snyder administration communications released Thursday.

Dennis Muchmore, Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief of staff, was quoted in a July 22 Department of Health and Human Services email expressing concern about the handling of the water crisis, according to documents obtained by Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards through open records requests.

“I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint,” Muchmore wrote in an email exchange. “I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving from the (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) samples. ... These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).”

Despite such concern at the highest levels of Michigan government, lower-level officials continued to downplay the severity of Flint’s drinking water problems for almost three more months. It would take until mid-October for DEQ’s top official to admit mistakes were made and for Flint to be switched back to a different water source.

New emails released this week, matched with others obtained last year, help show how a flow of bad information prompted Michigan officials to give false assurances to Flint residents worried about the levels of lead in their tap water.

Two days after Muchmore’s communication, he received a response from DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel indicating the concerns were unfounded.

“In terms of near-future issues, the bottom line is that residents of Flint do not need to worry about lead in their water supply, and DEQ’s recent sampling does not indicate an eminent health threat from lead or copper,” Wurfel wrote.

“That said, anyone with lead pipes in their premise plumbing (this translates to thousands of homes in our older urban centers, btw) should at least be aware that they have them, and (that) to some limited degree that’s going to impart minute parts per billion of lead in water no matter what. It’s why nobody uses lead pipes anymore.”

Roughly a half-hour before sending the email, Wurfel was told by Stephen Busch, DEQ’s district coordinator, the latest testing results showed Flint to be in compliance with federal standards.

Before sending the email, Muchmore had met regularly with Flint community leaders and pastors over their water quality concerns, Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said. Snyder’s office later facilitated the distribution of 1,500 water filters to Flint residents during the summer.

In August, evidence would begin to surface of rising levels of lead in the blood of Flint’s children. It wasn’t until October that Snyder’s administration moved to switch the industrial city’s water source back to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s Lake Huron from the corrosive Flint River.

This week, the governor declared a state of emergency over the city’s drinking water problems and met Thursday with Flint’s mayor about how to proceed.

Both Wurfel and former DEQ Director Dan Wyant resigned last week as Snyder apologized to Flint residents for the water crisis.

‘A missed opportunity’

Edwards’ work helped highlight lead contamination in Flint’s water in 2015, and he has been one of the Snyder administration’s harshest critics. But he said Thursday the emails and public documents supply evidence that a handful of DEQ staffers provided bad information and created a chain reaction that kept necessary water quality warnings from reaching the public.

In the wake of Muchmore’s July email to Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, follow-up communications reveal health officials attempting to analyze the latest testing results and set up a public information program for Flint residents. They also show health and environmental quality staffers struggling to interpret data that showed elevated levels of lead in children’s blood during the summer months.

Lead levels tend to rise annually at that time of year, and state researchers grappled with determining whether the 2015 increase was typical or beyond the norm. Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities and, at high levels, may lead to seizures, coma and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“... At the start of the work, DHHS reached out to (DEQ) for background information, and they were clearly provided misinformation that skewed their interpretation of the health analysis,” Edwards wrote in an online post. “With the benefit of hindsight, we do think it was a missed opportunity, but the reason it was missed was because of (DEQ) claims that everything was fine with Flint water....”

Flint’s water quality problems began in April 2014, after it stopped getting its water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. In an attempt to save money, the cash-strapped city had negotiated for years for better rates from the Detroit system — to no avail. In 2013, while under the control of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager, the city agreed to join the new regional Karegondi Water Authority.

But the Karegondi distribution system, which would draw water from Lake Huron, was not expected to be completed until some time later this year. To bridge the gap, the city began 20 months ago drawing water from the Flint River. Almost immediately, residents complained of discolored water with bad tastes and foul smells.

Their concerns ratcheted up in late summer 2015 when Edwards’ testing showed elevated lead in the water and follow-up research at Hurley Medical Center showed rising levels of contamination in children’s blood.

Corrosion controls lacking

It soon became clear state and city officials had allowed Flint water to be pumped into homes without the use of corrosion controls. Chemicals such as phosphates are typically added to water at the treatment plant to prevent lead from old pipes and plumbing connections from leaching into the drinking water.

For a city of Flint’s size, corrosion controls are required. But since the switch to the river, there was confusion among state employees about the requirements, the timetable for implementing them as well as the proper techniques for testing water in Flint homes.

Emails from as early as February show a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official questioning DEQ staffers about the apparent lack of corrosion controls. Other documents indicate both state and federal officials downplayed the concerns or failed to recognize their significance.

Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical executive at Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, acknowledged the string of department emails shows more could have been done to investigate the lead concerns.

“Absolutely there’s been missed opportunities,” Wells said during a Thursday media event in Lansing.

Different authorities are trying to sort out responsibility for the contaminated water. A task force assembled by Snyder released a summary of its findings late last month that largely faulted DEQ workers, which precipitated the departures of Wyant and Wurfel.

This week the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit said it had opened its own investigation into the matter.

“We don’t know where the investigation will go,” U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said. “We aren’t accusing anyone. We owe it to the people of Flint to turn over every stone to see if the law was broken.”

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Staff Writers Chad Livengood and Jennifer Chamber contributed.