Story highlights

CNN filed a public records request for documents related to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak in Michigan

The outbreak hit Flint in 2014, shortly after water supply was switched to Flint River; 9 people died

Michigan health department asked for payment of $11,071 to search and prepare documents

Editor’s Note: Update: A day after this story’s publication, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services sent CNN a letter saying fees for these records would be waived but processing could take up to 60 additional business days.

CNN —  

Michigan’s health department has demanded thousands of dollars to release documents related to one of the worst outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease in U.S. history, which some experts say could have been prevented had state officials acted sooner.

In response to a public records request from CNN, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services asked for payment of $11,071 in order to search for and “prepare” emails and documents in which state officials discussed the disease and its spread.

Beginning in the summer of 2014, an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease hit Flint, Michigan, ultimately infecting 87 people and killing nine.

Genesee County Health Director Jim Henry previously told CNN the disease’s spread could have been thwarted, but the state health department did not help local officials find the source. Henry suspects the source was the Flint River, which became the city’s water supply in April 2014, shortly before the outbreak, under the leadership of a state-appointed official.

Henry said the bacteria that can cause the respiratory disease Legionnaires’ flourished due to a high amount of organic carbon in the river water.

The office of Gov. Rick Snyder has been releasing emails and documents related to the water crisis, but so far a limited number of emails from the health department related to the spread of Legionnaires’ disease have been publicly posted.

Emails: Governor’s aides pushed for ‘urgent’ fix in Flint

An attorney with the health department said processing CNN’s request for documents and emails referencing Legionnaires’ in the county would burden the department’s epidemiologists, some of whom would have to search their individual accounts and decide for themselves which emails were relevant.

The attorney said the lack of a central data system in the department drives up the costs of processing these requests. A letter sent to CNN said searching for and locating the material would cost $9,000 with another $2,000 in duplication fees.

CNN narrowed the request to ask for emails on lead and Legionnaires’ from three officials but the department still has not provided the documents.

Michigan law allows departments to charge for labor, mailing or printing costs, but nationally, many government agencies waive fees for news outlets requesting documents on public health issues or charge up to a few hundred dollars to organize and transfer requested documents.

Members of Congress and other watchdogs have critiqued Michigan for a lack of transparency in the wake of the water crisis and the Legionnaires’ outbreak.

In January, Governor Snyder said Michigan was treating the Legionnaires’ spike with “urgency and transparency,” but Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Michigan), whose district includes Flint, called the comments “outrageous,” saying the state cannot be trusted to make decisions that are in the best interests of Flint residents.

Jane Briggs-Bunting, president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit group that promotes transparency, said given the severity of the public health crisis in Flint, state departments should have begun organizing and releasing to news outlets all the related information at a low cost as soon as possible, but she says that hasn’t happened.

“There is a climate against public disclosure,” Briggs-Bunting said.

Flint water lead levels ‘much, much better’

Briggs-Bunting said high fees are the most common complaint she hears about Michigan records requests and that some state departments have begun using record-processing fees to generate revenue, which she says stifles the free flow of information and goes against the intention of the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

“They charge $20 for two seconds of work,” she said. “If a fee is too high, people don’t pursue the records, and the public stays in the dark.”

Michigan ranked last among the 50 states and received an “F” grade in a report on state transparency and accountability by The Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity released in November. “Public access to information” was flagged as a key factor in the low ranking.