Michigan officials played blame game over Flint water crisis, emails show

A man helps to load bottled water in the agency's warehouse that will be distributed to the public, after elevated lead levels were found in the city's water, in Flint, Michigan © Rebecca Cook
While residents of Flint, Michigan complained of drinking lead-filled water that was slowly poisoning them, state and local officials tried to shift blame around, emails released by Governor Rick Snyder reveal.

Dennis Muchmore, the governor’s then chief of staff, wrote to Snyder in a September 25 email saying that state health officials were worried that the issue could turn into “political football,” according to CBS News. Muchmore retired on Tuesday, USA Today reported.

"Of course, some of the Flint people respond by looking for someone to blame instead of working to reduce anxiety," Muchmore wrote. "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."

The message was made public on Wednesday as part of the governor releasing 273 emails regarding Flint from 2014 and 2015 due to pressure from residents and the media.

Snyder, a Republican, has come under heavy criticism due to the lead water crisis unfolding under the state’s watch

"The real responsibility rests with the county, city and [Karegnondi Water Authority], but since the issue here is the health of citizens and their children we're taking a proactive approach putting [Department of Health and Human Services] out there as an educator,” Muchmore wrote.

Flint’s water troubles began in 2014, when the state began the construction of a water pipeline from Lake Huron, which required the city to temporarily switch to the Flint River as its water source and away from Detroit, which had notified its neighboring city that it was terminating its water contract with Flint in 12 months. The change was announced in a release that noted “lingering uncertainty about the quality of the water” from the Flint River, and assured the public that it would be tested.

After the switch was made, residents complained that their water looked and tasted like something was wrong with it, and independent researchers from Virginia Tech University even found that it was highly corrosive. Officials, however, continued to insist that it was safe to drink.

READ MORE: MI gov. to release all Flint water emails as WH, class action lawsuits get involved

"The water certainly has occasional less than savory aspects like color because of the apparently more corrosive aspects of the hard water coming from the river, but that has died down with the additional main filters,” Muchmore said in another September email. “Taste and smell have been problems also and substantial money has been extended to work on those issues.”

Officials eventually relented and switched back to the city of Detroit as Flint’s water source in October 2015, but by that time many residents had been drinking water from the Flint River for months.

Because the river water was so corrosive, pipes are still putting a small amount of lead into water, even after the source was switched. Even though many people are still forced to buy bottled water or use filters, nobody has come forward to foot the bill to replace the city’s pipes.

“Our voices are not as heard as they would be in a more affluent area,” a resident told RT.

Lead exposure can cause serious long-term health problems. In children, it can lead to lower IQ, attention deficit disorder and has been linked to criminality.

“There’s no treatment, there’s no antidote. Once lead is in your body it’s in your body. It causes neurotoxicity, it damages your nervous system,” Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, whose findings of elevated lead levels in children’s blood spurred outside investigations into the crisis, told RT.

Snyder profusely apologized to the people of Flint during his State of The State address on Tuesday. He promised that he would push for long term assistance to the city, and the Michigan House approved $28 million requested by the governor to assist the city on Wednesday.

“To you, the people of Flint, I want to say tonight, as I have before, I am sorry, and I will fix it,” the second-term governor said in his speech.

President Barack Obama was in Michigan on Wednesday for a trip to Detroit, where he toasted the resurgence of the country’s automotive industry. But he also used the opportunity to criticize the handling of Flint’s water crisis by responsible authorities.

“What is inexplicable and inexcusable is once people figured out there was a problem and that there was lead in the water. The notion that immediately families were not notified, things were not shut down – that shouldn’t happen anywhere,” Obama told CBS News. “It’s also an indication that sometimes we downplay the role that an effective government has to play in protecting public health and safety of people and clearly the system broke down.”

READ MORE: ‘Flint is a crime scene,’ says Rev. Jesse Jackson as EPA defends water crisis response

Obama had signed an emergency declaration for Flint on Tuesday, which allowed federal funds to be used in Flint. However, he stopped short of declaring a disaster in the city, but a decision which Snyder asked him to reconsider.

In what will be the first congressional inquiry into the water crisis, the US House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is set to hold a hearing on Wednesday, February 3. Governor Snyder is expected to be among those invited to testify, according to the office of Representative Brenda Lawrence (D-Michigan), who sits on the committee but whose district does not cover Flint.

The bipartisan committee invited also invited Flint Mayor Karen Weaver; Dan Wyden, who resigned from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality following the crisis; Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 Director Susan Hedman; Dr. Hanna-Attisha, and Virginia Tech Professor Mark Edwards, who led the team that studied the levels of lead in the city’s drinking water.