U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, photographer not specified or unknown / Public domain

April 16, 2020; Vice

Writing for Vice, Jordan Chariton and Jenn Dize write that they’ve found “hundreds of confidential pages of documents…along with emails and interviews [that] reveal a coordinated, five-year cover-up overseen by [former Governor Rick] Snyder and his top officials to prevent news of Flint’s deadly water from going public.”

Chariton and Dize detail their findings in an 8,000-word exposé. Among their findings:

  • “Snyder was warned about the dangers of using the Flint River as a water source a year before the water switch even occurred.”
  • “Snyder had knowledge of the [Legionella pneumophila bacterial outbreak] in Flint as early as October 2014, six months after the water switch—and 16 months earlier than he claimed to have learned of the deadly outbreak in testimony under oath before Congress.”
  • “Communication among Snyder, his top officials, and the state health department spiked in October 2014 around the same time state environmental and health officials traded emails and calls about the Legionella outbreak in Flint.”

Chariton and Dize add that the Legionella outbreak “may have killed at least 115 people in 2014 and 2015, and potentially more whose pneumonia wasn’t officially considered Legionnaires’ disease, the illness caused by Legionella.” Lead contamination, they note, has also left Flint residents, “with a laundry list of illnesses, including kidney and liver problems, severe bone and muscle pain, gastrointestinal problems, loss of teeth, autoimmune diseases, neurological deficiencies, miscarriages, Parkinson’s disease, severe fatigue, seizures, and volatile mood disorders.”

NPQ has written extensively about lead poisoning in Flint. Chariton and Dize provide a quick reminder of the financial motivation that led Flint to switch its water supply, causing widespread lead poisoning. As Chariton and Dize recall, Flint reported a $10.1 million deficit in 2010, but had been paying $11 to $12 million annually for drinking water funneled from Detroit Water and Sewerage—at the time “the third-largest water and sewage utility in the country, covering 40 percent of Michigan’s residents.”

In 2011, Snyder declared a financial emergency in Flint and appointed an unelected emergency manager to run the city. Even though a 2011 engineering study commissioned by Flint officials determined its outdated water treatment plant was woefully incapable of safely treating Flint River water, the push to switch water supply persisted. In early 2014, Ed Kurtz, the city’s second emergency manager, authorized using the Flint River as the city’s temporary water source “for approximately two years” until a pipeline could be built, with the water switch occurring on April 25, 2014.

Chariton and Dize note that, “Proper corrosion control chemicals weren’t added into the Flint River supply at the time of the switch, a step that could have prevented lead in the aging pipes from dislodging into the water traveling into people’s homes.”

Chlorine levels added to the water supply were also inconsistent—high in some parts of the city, and too low in other parts. This allowed the deadly waterborne bacteria Legionella to develop….by October 2014, residents had been receiving discolored and odorous water for months. They developed rashes and started losing hair.

In March 2013, more than a year before the Flint River switch, Stephen Busch, a supervisor with the state environmental agency’s drinking water division, had warned in an email that regular use of the Flint River would pose “an increased microbial risk to public health” along with an “increased risk of disinfection by-product (carcinogen)” to Flint residents, a memo Snyder had seen. In a post-switch memo that Busch had also sent to Snyder and other gubernatorial office officials, Busch warned about the potential of a dangerous bacteria to be in the water.

The Vice article also identifies Rick Baird, an aide to Snyder, as a “fixer.” For instance, Melissa Mays tells Chariton and Dize that in May 2018, Baird said to her, “How about I do this: If I come in and replace your interior plumbing, your fixtures, the water heater, and your service line, would that make you happy and would that make you quiet?”

Mays said she would go along only “if you do that for everybody,” a response which Mays says caused Baird’s face to turn “beet red.”

To date, no one has been held accountable for the Flint water poisoning, even though charges were initially filed in January 2016. Of the 15 people who were charged, seven entered plea bargains, but “the deals carried an assurance that their records would be wiped clean after a certain period.” Charges against the eight remaining defendants were dropped last June with the assurance that new charges would be submitted in their place.

Ten months later, no new charges have been filed, although state officials claim to be “on the case.” In the meantime, a federal judge did rule this month that a civil lawsuit from a Flint victim against Snyder may go forward.—Steve Dubb