Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, whose administration has been embroiled in controversy over its response to the city of Flint's contaminated water, released 274 pages of relevant emails on Wednesday in an attempt at transparency. But there's a seven-month gap in the disclosed correspondence between February and September 2015 — a critical period during which many developments occurred and concerns over the public water supply reached a fever pitch.
The emails (see below for PDF) show that months before reports of lead poisoning hit the news, Snyder received a briefing from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on February 1 that included an almost dismissive warning regarding the quality of Flint's drinking water. The brief appeared to reject much of the public's concern, noting that "the aesthetic values of water" are not subject to regulation. It also seemed to downplay the presence of total trihalomethanes, chemical compounds that can cause kidney and liver disease when consumed.
"It's not 'nothing,'" the brief says. "Flint's results managed to exceed the annual average in three quarters, and they must develop a plan to address it. But it's not like an eminent [sic] threat to public health."
"The key to the conversation is that TTHM [total trihalomethanes] is not a top health concern," it goes on to say, noting that only "chronic, longterm exposure" poses a problem, while suggesting that Flint's mayor was using the growing alarm to get public money.
"In summary," the brief continues, "the City of Flint has tremendous need to address its water delivery system."
The disclosed emails include no response from Snyder.
After this message from February 1, the governor didn't receive another email regarding Flint's drinking water until September 5, according to the documents.
"This was the most crucial time period," said Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter with the ACLU of Michigan who played a large role in drawing attention to the issue. "The lack of emails is mystifying."
The documents show that on March 3, Deputy State Treasurer Wayne Worlanan received a memo from Jerry Ambrose, the city's state-appointed emergency manager at the time, evaluating the costs of reconnecting the city's system to Detroit's, whose water was from Lake Huron. The fact that such a letter was provided to the state treasurer's office suggests that a problem with Flint's water had been acknowledged, and that a switch back to Detroit's water was under consideration.
During this time, the highest levels of lead to date were discovered in the homes of Flint residents. On March 17, lead levels in the home of Leanne Walters were measured at 397 parts-per-billion — roughly 40 times higher than the World Health Organization's 10 parts-per-billion safety threshold.
On March 24, Ambrose issued a statement arguing against the Flint City Council's effort to reconnect to Detroit's system.
"Flint water today is safe by all [US Environmental Protection Agency] and [Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] standards, and the city is working daily to improve its quality," he said. "It is incomprehensible to me that [seven] members of the Flint City Council would want to send more than $12 million a year to the system serving Southeast Michigan, even if Flint rate payers could afford it. [Lake Huron] water from Detroit is no safer than water from Flint."
Virginia Tech researchers tested the water in Walters's home again sometime in late June or early July, and the results were shocking. Lead levels exceeded 13,000 parts-per-billion. The test results pushed a city that was already on the verge of panic over the edge — yet there is no mention of the discovery in Snyder's emails.
'This was the most crucial time period. The lack of emails is mystifying.'
The lead testing that occurred early that summer compelled a close-knit group of Flint residents to organize and make as much noise as possible. One of the most visible of these activists was Melissa Mays, a Flint resident whose family was personally affected by lead and copper poisoning.
"Throughout the month of August, we participated in a nationwide petition via the Food and Water Watch to have our water switched back to Detroit," she recalled. "We got 26,865 signatures, each of which automated an email that went directly to the governor's office. That's a hefty chunk of emails that would be difficult to overlook."
The emails disclosed by the Snyder administration contain no sign or acknowledgement of these petition signatures.
Mays added that she and several other residents met with state officials, including Dennis Muchmore, the governor's chief of staff, to present preliminary test results from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that showed lead contamination in Flint's water.
The documents acknowledge that the meeting occurred on August 4. No mention of the meeting appears in any of the emails disclosed by the governor's office.
It wasn't until September 5 that emails regarding Flint water appear again, when Snyder discusses the delivery of water filters with several of his top aides.
"The filter distribution email seems to have appeared with no context as to why it's happening," observed Guyette, the ACLU reporter.
Two scenarios might explain the absence of communication during this time period: The governor was either not informed of these matters by his staff, or he discussed them entirely offline. A third possibility is that Snyder's office decided to selectively withhold relevant correspondence during this period from public scrutiny.
The governor's office refused to discuss this matter over the phone, but acknowledged in an email that there was "considerable activity" from February to September within various departments. Dave Murray, Snyder's chief spokesman, explained that department leaders and Snyder's chief of staff were acting as his intermediaries with concerned residents of Flint, and said that they met regularly with Snyder. Those sessions did not generate any email correspondence, however, according to Murray. Snyder's office insists that the emails released this week were all of the emails that it sent or received regarding Flint's water.
The governor's office and the state's legislature are not required to disclose emails because of a blanket exemption from Michigan's Freedom of Information Act, which normally would grant a measure of public access to such documents. Michigan is one of only two states with such an exemption.
There have been widespread demands for Snyder to release the emails of his staff, on the assumption that their correspondence would reveal details that can help determine where mistakes were made and who was responsible. Progress Michigan, a government watchdog, is one such group calling for an end to the FOIA exemption.
"We've been calling for the repeal of that exemption for a long time," said Lonnie Scott, the group's executive director. "It's not enough for the governor to simply drop the exemption in this case. If he's serious and wants to make sure this never happens again, he and the legislature will drop the exemption for good."
The fact that the executive exemption exists in the first place is one of the main points of contention between the Snyder administration and those seeking accountability. Many believe that if the governor truly wanted to show that he's committed to rebuilding trust, he would abolish the exemption and release the emails of his staff in full.
Follow Eric Fernandez on Twitter: @Wakeupitsfern