Aide: Gov learned of Legionnaires’ outbreak this week

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder learned just this week of a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County in 2014 and 2015 while Flint was drawing drinking water from the Flint River, and he should have been informed months ago, his outgoing chief of staff said Friday.

“I’m sure he’s angry,” Dennis Muchmore said after a taping of WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” “I’m getting used to it. ... I’m over being angry about it because it doesn’t do any good.”

“In government, all we want to do is find somebody to blame and I don’t think that serves any purpose,” Muchmore added.

The Snyder administration disclosed this week that there were 87 cases of the respiratory illness that caused 10 deaths. The disclosure came as the state Department of Environmental Quality has been under fire for weeks for not properly enforcing corrosion controls linked to toxic lead leaching into Flint’s water supply.

State health officials are unsure whether the spike in Legionnaires’ disease has a connection to Flint’s water problems, which began in April 2014 when a Snyder-appointed emergency manager switched the city’s water source to save money.

Legionnaires’ disease leads to pneumonia and comes from a bacteria that can be found in large plumbing systems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Muchmore said he didn’t think there was negligence by officials at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for not bringing the disease outbreak to the governor’s attention earlier.

“What it does is show is that that information flow ... isn’t always forthcoming,” Muchmore said.

Muchmore said Snyder was briefed Monday by Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon about the Legionairres’ outbreak before he found out.

“I found out second,” Muchmore said.

With the Flint water crisis unfolding, Snyder will detail a “comprehensive” water strategy during his annual State of the State address Tuesday, Muchmore said.

Late Thursday night, Snyder asked President Barack Obama to declare a federal emergency in Flint and expedite major disaster relief in Genesee County as a result of the city’s lead-contaminated water crisis.

Snyder’s request for federal financial assistance for Flint residents and government agencies responding to the damage to the city’s water system came as the governor has been under intense weeklong national scrutiny for his handling of the crisis.

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton waded into the issue this week, sharply criticizing Snyder.

“It had to be done,” Muchmore said of the request for federal assistance. “Because I think it’s a crisis that requires everybody’s participation, whether it’s the White House.”

“I mean, if Hillary Clinton all at once thinks she knows something about Flint water, well, you know, pitch in,” Muchmore added.

Clinton has questioned why state officials allowed Flint River water to continue flowing to city homes for nearly a year after General Motors Co. deemed it too corrosive for parts produced at its Flint engine plant.

Muchmore said the administration was aware of GM’s switch back to Detroit’s water system.

State officials learned that the automaker’s metal parts had a “small tolerance” for corrosive water that couldn’t be provided through “everyday public water,” he said.

“It was a flag,” Muchmore said.

During the public affairs TV show, Muchmore detailed his interactions with state health and environmental officials over the summer after getting numerous complaints from Flint residents about the smell and color of the city’s river water. Muchmore sent Lyon an email on July 22 saying Flint residents were “basically getting blown off by us.”

DEQ officials said there wasn’t a problem with lead levels in the water, Muchmore said.

“I wasn’t satisfied with the answers we were getting because every time we turned around for the last year, there was another problem with Flint water,” he said. “I felt like the people of Flint weren’t getting a fair hearing on their issues and people weren’t responding to their problems.”

Muchmore said he pushed Lyon to get the health department to review outside studies of Flint’s water and lead levels in children by Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha at Hurley Medical Center in Flint.

By late September, after a second review, state health officials confirmed the independent studies, triggering Snyder to switch Flint back to Detroit’s Lake Huron water supply.

After five years as Snyder’s top aide, Muchmore is departing the administration after Tuesday’s address to return to Lansing’s lobby corps and lead the government relations and regulatory affairs practice at the Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP law firm.

Muchmore said his retirement from state government did not have anything to do with Flint’s water problems.