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Michigan governor's emails shine light on Flint water crisis

Story highlights

  • Staffer for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder worried crisis was being politicized
  • He wrote the "real responsibility" did not rest with the state
  • Snyder releases his emails regarding the Flint water crisis from 2014 and 2015

Flint, Michigan (CNN)Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's then-chief of staff wrote an email in September that expressed concern the water crisis in Flint was being politicized, and argued the issue was not primarily the state's problem.

His email was made public Wednesday as part of the governor's release of his own emails regarding Flint from 2014 and 2015.
    Snyder, a Republican, has become a lightning rod for criticism because the crisis unfolded under the state's watch.
    "The DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) and DCH (Department of Community Health) feel that some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children's exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football claiming the departments are underestimating the impacts on the populations and particularly trying to shift responsibility to the state," wrote Dennis Muchmore, Snyder's former chief of staff.
    "The real responsibility rests with the county, city and KWA (Karegnondi Water Authority), but since the issue here is the health of citizens and their children we're taking a proactive approach putting DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services) out there as an educator," he said.
    Snyder's emails are instructive because they show, at least in part, how officials responded to the growing concerns about toxic lead contamination in Flint's tap water.
    The problems began in April 2014 when the state decided to switch Flint's water source temporarily to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure until a new supply line to Lake Huron was ready.
    After the switch, residents complained their water looked, smelled and tasted funny. Virginia Tech researchers found the water was highly corrosive. But officials initially brushed off concerns, insisting the water was safe.
    "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. Taste and smell have been problems also and substantial money has been extended to work on those issues," Muchmore wrote in another September email.
    "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.
    "We're throwing as much assistance as possible at the lead problem as regardless of what the levels, explanations or proposed solutions, the residents and particularly the poor need help to deal with it," he said.
    The tide turned in October, with the city moving back to Lake Huron for water.
    By then, the damage was already done.

    Too little, too late?

    The Michigan House of Representatives approved $28 million in emergency funding on Wednesday, one day after the governor asking legislators for that amount to fund a series of immediate actions.
    Critics say the figure is too little and too late.
    "There's no way to justify any of this," said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan. "Every single decision was made by the governor and this state government. ... The state government has the legal and moral responsibility."
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    The state should spend more to fix Flint's problems, she said, especially at a time when it boasts a budget surplus of $500 million.
    Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who was elected in November, has said the costs to undo the damage, both to infrastructure and residents' health, could be between $1 billion and $1.5 billion.
    She told CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper" that the suggested $28 million was simply not enough.
    "It's a twofold kind of situation. We have an infrastructure crisis, but we have a public health crisis in the city of Flint right now," Weaver said. "We still can't drink our water."
    Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee called the figure Snyder proposed "a fraction of the money city residents have (already) paid for poisoned water that they cannot drink." Stabenow said it would barely make a dent in paying for new water pipes that are needed to replace damaged ones.
    "There's not a major commitment to make sure dollars go to fix this quickly," the senator told CNN's "New Day" on Wednesday. "And I continue to be stunned as we look at the slow walking of the state."

    'This is an embarrassment'

    Snyder tried to calm fears and win over residents by offering a heartfelt apology Tuesday night.
    "I am sorry and I will fix it," he said during his annual State of the State speech.
    "You deserve better. You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here with me. Most of all, you deserve to know the truth," the governor said.
    But Flint resident Patty Warner suggested there's little faith that public officials will fix this failure, given their track record.
    "No one trusts anyone in Flint or Lansing," Warner told CNN. "Unfortunately, we've lost public trust."
    "I want Gov. Snyder to solve the problem and basically get up out of office," longtime Flint resident Tomeko Hornaday told CNN, echoing the sentiments of many of the governor's critics.
    "We shouldn't have to be going through this; we shouldn't have to do this," she said. "This is an embarrassment to the city of Flint, first of all, and an embarrassment to our government and to our residents."
    The Environmental Protection Agency is looking at Michigan's entire drinking water program and how the Safe Drinking Water Act was implemented there. Its findings could add to the state's price to address potential water woes.
    These investigations follow the EPA's criticism about what it calls state and local authorities' missteps in Flint.
    The agency said, "What happened in Flint should not have happened."
    President Barack Obama echoed that sentiment when he spoke in Detroit on Wednesday, describing the crisis in Flint as a "terrible tragedy."
    "I know that if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself that my kids' health could be at risk," he said. "It is a reminder of why you can't shortchange basic services that we provide to our people."

    Lead poisoning a major concern

    Cleaning up the tap water and upgrading infrastructure aren't the only big costs that loom. In addition to investigations by the EPA, local U.S. attorney's office and Michigan's attorney general's office, at least three lawsuits have been filed. Those suits seek individual damages for Flint residents -- about 500 and counting -- who have complained of health issues and worry about future ailments.
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    Snyder announced last week that the number of Legionnaires' disease cases in Genesee County spiked in the last two years, though another state official noted that not all those sickened drank Flint water.
    Another big concern is lead poisoning. It can severely affect mental and physical development, especially in children for whom the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes there's "no safe blood lead level."
    "Once the lead is in your body, it never leaves," Stabenow said. "It's horrible."
    Rhonda Kelso, a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits, called the situation "unconscionable."
    "You really don't want to think about it; you want to block it out of your mind," she said.

    Following the paper trail

    During the discovery process, lawyers said, attorneys and their clients should receive emails and other documents from government officials, including Snyder, that could shed light on a critical yet unanswered question: How did this happen?
    Attorney Michael Pitt said Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services knew about elevated blood lead levels as far back as September 2014 "and sat on this information for 10 months."
    "At a certain point, I think they were ashamed, embarrassed and humiliated," the lawyer told CNN's "New Day" on Wednesday. "They were not responding in a proper way, and when they were confronted, they still denied it."
    Beyond whatever the official investigations find out, Pitt said citizens taking action in the courts will lead to answers.
    "It is pernicious," he said. "And the lawsuits are going to get to the whys (that) these individuals did it."
    The ordeal has cast a cloud over Flint, a blue-collar city of about 100,000 that's been through tough times before -- but nothing like this.
    "We take things for granted," said Ken Van Wagoner, owner of Flint's Good Beans Cafe coffee shop. "We're always sure until someone tells you things aren't right."