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Story highlights

Emails provide insight into what happened behind the scenes as the crisis unraveled

"I see this as an urgent matter to fix," governor's adviser says in one email

(CNN) —  

Newly released emails from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder reveal some of his top aides advocated switching Flint’s drinking water away from the highly corrosive Flint River a year before the seriousness of the crisis became clear.

The emails, released after public pressure for transparency, provide insight into what happened behind the scenes as the crisis unfolded.

In one, dated October 14, 2014, Valerie Brader, the governor’s deputy legal counsel and senior policy adviser, reached out to top aides.

“As you know there have been problems with the Flint water quality since they left the (Detroit Water and Sewerage Department), which was a decision by the emergency manager there,” Brader wrote.

“I am not sure who is the best person to initiate the conversation with the (emergency manager), but I see this as an urgent matter to fix.”

The email was addressed to Snyder’s then-chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, and three other top aides, including Michael Gadola, who also provided the governor legal counsel.

’Downright scary’

Minutes after receiving Brader’s email, Gadola wrote: “To anyone who grew up in Flint as I did, the notion that I would be getting my drinking water from the Flint River is downright scary.”

He ended with a jab at the emergency manager who is blamed for making the decision to switch the supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River:

“Too bad the (emergency manager) didn’t ask me what I thought, though I’m sure he heard it from plenty of others,” Gadola wrote.

“My mom is a city resident. Nice to know she’s drinking water with elevated chlorine levels and fecal coliform. I agree with Valerie. They should try to get back on the Detroit system as a stopgap ASAP before this thing gets too far out of control.”

Fecal coliform is usually harmless, but can cause diarrhea, dysentery and hepatitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

’There were early questions’

The email exchange is dated six months after the water supply switch, a decision made by emergency manager Edward Kurtz, who was appointed by the governor. Kurtz is blamed for making the decision to switch the water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure.

In response to the email exchanges, Ari Adler, the governor’s spokesman, told CNN that there were preliminary concerns.

“There were early questions, people asking about the treatment of the water. And Valerie ended up talking to the emergency manager and was told the water would be treated, and it seemed the quality improved, and she let it go,” Adler said. “As we all know, the quality of the water wasn’t the ultimate problem, it was the corrosion control.”

Failing to treat the water properly and control corrosion allowed the water to eat away at the iron and lead pipes, causing lead to leach into the water supply. For nearly two years, the city’s residents consumed the highly corrosive water from the river.

In an interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow on February 5, Snyder emphasized the largest issue was with lead in the water, which wasn’t discovered until later.

He has apologized for how the situation was handled.

“We made a mistake within the Department of Environmental Quality that was hugely serious. And it was a lack of common sense. And I take responsibility for people working for me. I take responsibility for that.”

Secret communications

In Brader’s email to Snyder aides, she made clear she did not want the emails subject to public scrutiny and tried to keep them from being handed over to anyone who tried to use the Freedom Of Information Act.

“P.S. Note: I have not copied (Department of Environmental Quality) on this message for FOIA reasons,” she wrote.

Michigan law allows the governor’s Executive Office to keep its communications secret and exempt from FOIA laws, but not the Department of Environmental Quality.

Revelations from emails from the governor’s office have sparked furious reactions and calls for prosecutions of all those responsible for what turned into the Flint water crisis.

“They should go down for this,” Flint resident Nakiya Wakes said. “They should all go to jail.”

CNN’s Sara Ganim and Linh Tran contributed to this report.