Michigan governor’s email dump reveals political calculus behind Flint water crisis

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Keoni Cabral/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

Snyder personally released more than 250 pages of internal documents.

The residents of Flint, Michigan, now have greater insight into how state officials dealt with their continuing water crisis—and calculated its political risks.

Facing immense public pressure, the office of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Wednesday published hundreds of pages of internal documents from 2014 and 2015 related to Flint’s water contamination disaster, which has left nearly 100,000 residents with toxic drinking water and at least 10 dead from apparently related causes.

“Some of the Flint people respond by looking for someone to blame instead of working to reduce anxiety.”

“The most relevant piece is for me to step up and say here are my personal e-mails, not only the ones I sent, but the ones I received,” Snyder told the Detroit Today radio show Wednesday morning. “I made a personal decision to release my personal e-mails.”

In a 274-page dump emailed to press outlets, including the Daily Dot, Snyder’s office has released what it calls “all emails he sent and received regarding Flint from Jan. 2014 through Dec. 2015.” It paints a picture of a governor at times confused and concerned with Flint’s water problems, and includes a number of studies conducted by both government and outside agencies to determine what was wrong, why, and how to fix it.

The email cache also contains documents from 2013 detailing the agreement between Flint city officials and the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) to deliver the city’s water from Lake Huron via a new pipeline, which is currently under construction, beginning in 2016. That agreement is what prompted the city of Detroit to halt supplying water to Flint’s residents, who began receiving their water from the highly-toxic Flint River in April 2014 as a result.

Michigan’s state treasurer, Andy Dillion, authorized the switch of Flint’s water source in 2013, citing an expected cost savings of hundreds of millions of dollars over the next three decades.

On Nov. 17, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) sent Snyder’s office an overview of the governments of Michigan and Flint’s roles according to the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1976. Snyder shared it with his staff. The message is marked “privileged attorney-client communication.”

“It’s pretty interesting,” Dennis Munchmore, Snyder’s chief of staff, commented on the DEQ review in an email. “Whether anyone accepts it as gospel is problematic, but it’s good on background.”

The DEQ concluded in part that “[t]he most direct oversight of water systems is conducted by state drinking water programs,” but that it is a city’s responsibility to treat its water system and “test its water routinely for specified contaminants.”

“The City, like all water suppliers, must notify consumers when there is a problem with water quality,” DEQ wrote.

Snyder, a Republican, has received scathing criticism for Flint’s handling of the crisis, especially from Democrats. President Barack Obama said he would be “beside myself” were his children subjected to Flint water, and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has openly called for Snyder’s resignation.

In one email to staff dated Sept. 25, 2015, Munchmore worried about the issue becoming “a political football” between Snyder’s administration and that of Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), who had requested a meeting with the governor’s office. 

“I can’t figure out why the state is responsible except that Dillon did make the ultimate decision so we’re not able to avoid the subject,” Munchmore wrote. He continued: “Of course, some of the Flint people respond by looking for someone to blame instead of working to reduce anxiety. We can’t tolerate increased lead levels in any event, but it’s really the city’s water system that needs to deal with it.”

“You did not create this crisis, and you do not deserve this.” 

Dillon, who ran unsuccessfully for Michigan governor in 2010, was appointed to the position of state treasurer by Snyder in 2011. He resigned his position in 2013, citing family matters. He continued to receive the same salary, however, while serving as a senior advisor to his successor, Kevin Clinton, according to Detroit News.

The first few pages in Snyder’s release are completely redacted. A cover sheet indicates this was done to protect “privileged attorney-client communications” concerning a 2014 court case involving orders issued by Flint’s emergency manager, which “modified existing contracts and collective bargaining agreements with respect to health-care benefits of municipal retirees,” according to court records.

The state’s efforts to cut costs by switching the source of Flint’s water from Detroit to the highly polluted Flint River are seen as the catalyst that has led to a major public health crisis. Left untreated, corrosive chemicals in the water caused lead from aging pipes to contaminate the water supply.

As many as 12,000 residents have experienced a range of serious medical problems associated with the toxic water flowing into their homes. An outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease sickened as many as 87 residents, 10 of whom died as a result. Eden Wells, Michigan’s chief medical executive, has said that nearly 9,000 children under the age of six may have been exposed to dangerous levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water.

Snyder has appealed President Obama’s decision to deny a federal disaster declaration, which would have granted the state an additional $96 million for bottled water, faucet filters, and replacement pipes. The president ordered federal emergency assistance last week after the children of Flint were diagnosed with elevated lead levels in their blood. But major disaster funding is typically reserved natural disasters. Flint’s water crisis “does not meet the legal definition,” the president said.

Flint is scheduled to switch to a new water supply in June of this year, after the completion of the KWA pipeline from Lake Huron. In his annual State of the State speech Thursday evening, Snyder addressed the residents of Flint, saying, “I’m sorry, and I will fix it. You did not create this crisis, and you do not deserve this.” 

Read Gov. Rick Snyder’s full email release below:

Photo via Keoni Cabral/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron was a reporter at the Daily Dot who covered security and politics. In 2015, he revealed the existence of an American hacker on the U.S. government's terrorist watchlist. He is a co-author of the Sabu Files, an award-nominated investigation into the FBI's use of cyber-informants. He became a staff writer at Gizmodo in 2017.

Kevin Collier

Kevin Collier

A former senior politics reporter for the Daily Dot, Kevin Collier focuses on privacy, cybersecurity, and issues of importance to the open internet. Since leaving the Daily Dot in March 2016, he has served as a reporter for Vocativ and a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed.