Snyder ignored top aides’ warnings of ‘downright scary’ hazards of Flint River

Mike Gadola, Gov. Rick Snyder and Valerie Brader.
Mike Gadola, Gov. Rick Snyder and Valerie Brader.

By Steve Neavling
Motor City Muckraker

Two of Gov. Rick Snyder’s top aides implored the administration to stop subjecting residents to the Flint River because of serious health hazards in October 2014, nearly a year before the governor allowed Flint to switch back to Detroit’s water, new e-mail records show.

Despite what one of the top aides described as an “urgent matter to fix,” she tried to ensure the public never learned of her warnings by failing to send the e-mail to the Department of Environmental Quality, which is responsible for enforcing the Safe Drinking Water Act and is subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

“I have not copied DEQ on this message for FOIA purposes,” Valerie Brader, deputy legal counsel and environmental policy adviser to Snyder, wrote on Oct. 14, 2014. 

Brader sounded the alarm on bacterial contamination and heavily chlorinated river water that was rusting engine parts for General Motors Co., prompting the automaker to find an alternative source of water.

“As you know there have been problems with the Flint water quality since they left the DWSD (Detroit Water and Sewerage Department), which was a decision by the emergency manager there,” Brader wrote to Snyder’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, and three other top Snyder aides.

Mike Gadola, then Snyder’s chief legal counsel, responded 12 minutes later, saying it was “downright scary” to continue using the Flint River as a source for drinking water.

Flint “should try to get back on the Detroit system as a stopgap ASAP before this thing gets too far out of control,” Gadola wrote in an e-mail.

Gadola, who grew up in Flint, expressed disappointment that the city’s emergency manager at the time, Darnell Earley, “didn’t ask me what I thought (about the Flint River), though I’m sure he heard it from plenty of others.”

Former Emergency Manager Darnell Earley
Former Emergency Manager Darnell Earley

Earley, who the governor later appointed as emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools, has resigned and refused to testify during the first Congressional hearing on the Flint water crisis.

My Mom is a City resident,” Gadola wrote. “Nice to know she’s drinking water with elevated chlorine levels and fecal coliform.”

Although the concerns were expressed with Snyder, he and his administration continued to tell the public that the water was safe to drink for another year.

About two months after the e-mail, Snyder appointed Gadola to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Brader’s e-mail detailed concerns about chlorine causing the formation of trihalomethane, a disinfection byproduct that can cause cancer and problems with the liver, kidneys, lungs and nervous system, according to the World Health Organization.

The e-mails are the strongest evidence yet that Snyder’s administration knew of the health dangers and continued to ignore them as thousands of residents were poisoned with elevated levels of lead.

Three months after the e-mails, Snyder’s administration quietly began to supply clean water to state workers in Flint in January 2015, while telling residents the tap water was safe to drink.

As residents complained of health problems from the discolored, foul-smelling water, Snyder’s administration prepped for a public meeting in Flint in February 2015, spelling out ways to dismiss the hazards.

David Murray
Spokesman David Murray.

“It’s not like an eminent threat to public health,” David Murray, deputy press secretary for Gov. Rick Snyder, wrote in an e-mail in February 2015 to top administration officials. Snyder removed Murray, a former MLive.com reporter, this week and replaced him with a new public relations team.

Seven months later, after a second independent study showed elevated levels of lead in the drinking water, Snyder’s chief of staff stubbornly maintained Flint was better off with river water.

“It was still the right position for the long term benefit of the city and its future,” Muchmore wrote to the governor on Sept. 26, 2015, saying “the city’s water system needs to deal with it.”

Muchmore added: “I can’t figure out why the state is responsible.”

It was an odd conclusion for Muchmore to reach since the city was under state control and had no authority to stop Snyder’s emergency manager from switching the drinking water to the Flint River in April 2014.

Snyder and his top officials are now under several investigations for their role in the crisis, and the state’s Attorney General’s office warned that manslaughter charges are possible if authorities can prove that negligence led to deaths. In Genesee County, where Flint is located, health officials reported a spike in Legionnaires’ disease, with at least 87 cases and 10 deaths.

E-mail records also show that the Environmental Protection Agency warned Snyder officials in March 2015 that health experts suspected the highly corrosive Flint River was causing the deadly outbreak.

Snyder didn’t publicly acknowledge the outbreak until January 2016.

A year after Snyder’s top aides urged the administration to stop using the Flint River, the state finally acknowledged it had erred in October 2015. 

“Our actions reflected inexperience, and our public response to criticism was the wrong tone early in this conversation,” DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel wrote in an e-mail to the governor and other state officials.

Wurfel’s wife, Sara Wurfell, was Snyder’s spokeswoman at the time. Both have resigned.

Although Snyder has removed numerous members of his administration for their handling of the crisis, he has ignored increasing calls for his own resignation, blaming the crisis on state and federal health officials.

On Monday, the state approved a recall petition to remove Snyder from office. 

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.