‘Disaster’ warning preceded Flint water switch

Jonathan Oosting, Jim Lynch, and Chad Livengood

Lansing — A memo sent to a top official in the Snyder administration before Flint began using river water in April 2014 warned that rushing the city’s water treatment plant into full-time production “could lead to some big potential disasters down the road.”

The March 14, 2014, memo was among some 4,500 pages of meeting agendas and executive office emails released Thursday by Gov. Rick Snyder related to Flint’s lead-contaminated water crisis. Most of the documents, some heavily redacted and some sent from personal email accounts, were not disclosed in previous releases.

The expedited time frame to activate the Flint Water Treatment Plant ahead of Detroit’s year-long plan to cut off the city from its Lake Huron water source was “less than ideal,” according to the memo, which included an initial section that was redacted from the release.

The memo was originally sent to top Snyder aide Harvey Hollins on March 14, 2014, by Hollins aide Brian Larkin as part of a weekly update on the planned Karegnondi Water Authority, records show.

Records show the warning email was included in planning materials for a May 18, 2015, meeting involving Snyder’s inner circle, including Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, then-Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore, Snyder’s new Chief of Staff Jarrod Agen and Transformation Manager Rich Baird.

Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said the memo had nothing to do with the city’s eventual lead contamination crisis, which was caused by harsh river water leaching lead from aging pipes. He did not immediately know why the 2014 memo was included in notes for the 2015 meeting.

“As we all know, the water plant itself is operating fine, but without corrosion control chemicals, it had a detrimental impact on the lead pipes,” Adler said.

The city “made the decision” not to use corrosion controls “because they didn’t think they needed it,” Adler said. The state Department of Environmental Quality failed to ensure the chemicals were added, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency didn’t alert the public when an employee first raised a red flag.

“It was a failure at every level, all along the way. This was a perfect storm of bureaucratic mismanagement of a public health issue,” Adler said.

A previously released email showed that Flint water plant supervisor Mike Glasgow was also concerned about the conversion to Flint River water just days before the city would formally close a valve that had delivered Detroit water for nearly 50 years.

“If water is distributed from this plant in the next couple weeks, it will be against my direction,” Glasgow wrote in an April 17, 2014, email to officials at the state Department of Environmental Quality, suggesting management above him had its own “agenda.”

Residents began complaining about the taste, color and smell of their drinking water shortly after the April 25, 2014, switch. The city issued its first boil advisory in September of that year after fecal coliform was discovered in the water, a presence attributed to a broken valve at the water treatment plant.

The new emails released Thursday contained hundreds of pages where whole sections were redacted because the content was not related to Flint water or deemed “not relevant.”

Some of the emails were duplicates from the governor’s office’s previous disclosure of 16,895 pages of emails in 14 separate batches on Feb. 26 and Feb. 27. With Thursday’s disclosure, the governor’s office has now voluntarily released more than 21,000 pages of emails that would otherwise be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Initial releases from the governor’s office did not include emails sent through personal accounts, including messages sent to or from Snyder’s “Rick for Michigan” campaign account, which his office says he has used for personal purposes since winning election in 2010.

Adler said some personal email addresses may have been inadvertently used through iPads connected to multiple accounts. But he noted that executive office staff is generally advised to use personal accounts for any communications involving non-state business, even if those exchanges also mix personal and state topics.

“There’s no law against it,” Adler said. “We’re not handling secure documents like Hillary Clinton.”

A late December personal email thread involving former communications director Meegan Holland, Agen and Baird focused exclusively on development of a “Flint communications plan.”

“For now, we prefer to keep this plan offline,” she wrote.

Adler said he was not sure why that conversation began on personal email accounts, but he noted that Agen steered it back to state email.

“We should use our official email accounts for this,” Agen wrote in a Christmas Eve email. “This is state business. We are doing the right thing. I don’t ever want to give the appearance that this group is trying to NOT be transparent by using personal accounts.”

Adler said the use of personal email accounts was not an attempt to avoid public records requests under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The bulk of the emails released Thursday were sent from state email accounts. They were “missed” the first time around but found during a second “quality control search,” Adler said.

The emails contain a smattering of new revelations about the behind-the-scenes events surrounding Flint’s April 2014 switch to the Flint River and persistent water quality problems.

They include:

■ In April 2013, then-Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore sent Snyder a “heads up” email while the governor was on vacation that the administration was prepared to endorse Flint leaving Detroit’s water system for the new Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline from Lake Huron.

DEQ and the Treasury Department had analyzed the deal and agreed Flint would ultimately save money switching to the KWA, Muchmore said.

“I have no way of determining whether this is the right action except to depend on the two departments charged with this responsibility, so I recommend that we support their determination and let the chips fall where they may,” Muchmore wrote on April 4, 2013, to Snyder.

Snyder replied later that day, questioning why the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department had not presented “a serious counter” offer to keep “a key customer” like Flint.

“What happened to this concept?” Snyder asked.

■ A DEQ employee who had direct supervision over Flint’s use of river water was invited to a lunch with Snyder last March to discuss the city’s water quality issues.

Stephen Busch, the Lansing and Jackson district supervisor in DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, was among 10 employees who was to have lunch on March 10, 2015, with Snyder at his downtown Lansing office.

Each employee was to discuss “hot topics” with the governor, according to an email Snyder attorney Valerie Brader said March 6, 2015, sent to the governor’s schedulers.

Busch was slated to speak to Snyder about “Flint water quality issues,” according to the email.

Busch is currently suspended with pay for his role in the DEQ allowing Flint to use river water without treating it with corrosion control chemicals that could have prevented lead from leaching into the water supply.

Staff Writers Karen Bouffard, Melissa Nann Burke and Joel Kurth contributed.