MI governor’s aide knew about Flint Legionnaires' spike 10 months before public

© Rebecca Cook
Emails show the Michigan governor’s office knew about the outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in Flint and its possible connection to the city’s polluted water system in March 2015 – 10 months before the public was informed.

Documents released Thursday by Progress Michigan, a liberal advocacy group, show a principal adviser to Governor Rick Snyder was told by the former Department of Environmental Quality communications director that there was an uptick in Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County, where Flint is located.

Snyder himself has stated that he did not personally know of the situation in Flint until January 2016.

One of the emails shows the DEQ communications director Brad Wurfel wrote to Harvey Hollins in the governor’s office and said that more than 40 cases of the disease had been reported as of March 2015, “more than all the cases in the last five years or more combined.” Wurfel also said that the timing of the outbreak coincided with the city switching its water supply from Detroit and to the Flint River.

The email further showed that county health officials had been unable to perform tracebacks in order to find a source for the disease, and that the state health department couldn’t step in unless they were invited by the county or unless it was a multi-county outbreak.

Wurfel, who resigned shortly after the mayor of Flint declared a state of emergency over the water crisis in November 2015, downplayed the point that the Flint River was causing the outbreak.

“Essentially, Jim Henry with Genesee County Health is putting up the flare. He’s made the leap formerly in his email that the uptick in cases is directly attributable to the river as a drinking water source – this is beyond irresponsible, given that it his department has failed to the do the necessary traceback work to provide any conclusive evidence of where the outbreak is sourced,” he wrote.

The Legionnaires' outbreak sickened 87 people and caused the deaths of 10 others.

Lonnie Scott, the director of Progress Michigan, said the emails showed that either Snyder ignored the warnings about Legionnaires' disease or the culture within his administration was one of arrogance and ignorance.

“The fact that they potentially ignored information about people dying as a result of the switch is beyond comprehension,” said Scott in a statement. “Are we to believe that a top staffer with years of experience would not inform Governor Snyder of a possibly deadly situation? Either the governor is covering up his knowledge of this crisis or his governing culture does not allow for important information to flow from his top advisers to his desk.”

What the county health official Jim Henry wrote was that “the increase of the illnesses closely corresponds with the timeframe of the switch to the Flint River water. The majority of the cases reside or have an association with the city.”

Other emails show Henry had reached out to the state in October 2014 to raise the alarm, and that he had filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the city of Flint to get water testing results for various bacteria at the water treatment plan. The request filed in January 2015 had not been fulfilled by March.

The governor’s office issued a statement in response to the latest allegations.

"As the Governor has said repeatedly, and the record bears this out, he was not briefed on this issue until January 2016. He took action promptly and released the information publicly,” the statement read.

“When Harvey Hollins received the March email, he requested the DEQ look into the concerns, check with its experts, and get the facts. If the concerns were determined to be credible, the director was to bring the issue to the attention of the Governor.”

Hollins was appointed by Governor Snyder to oversee state and city efforts to fix Flint’s water crisis in December.