Governor’s emails show debate over blame for Flint water

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Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder talks to reporters Tuesday, during the press preview for the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, Jan. 12, 2016. Snyder's chief of staff questioned in September whether the state was responsible for Flint's ongoing water crisis, emails released Wednesday showed. Photo by Paul Warner/Getty Images

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder talks to reporters Tuesday, during the press preview for the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, Jan. 12, 2016. Snyder’s chief of staff questioned in September whether the state was responsible for Flint’s ongoing water crisis, emails released Wednesday showed. Photo by Paul Warner/Getty Images

LANSING, Mich. — A day after doctors reported high levels of lead in Flint children, Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief of staff told him the “real responsibility” for the city’s water issues rested with local government officials, emails released Wednesday showed.

Snyder’s messages about the Flint water crisis indicated that then-chief of staff Dennis Muchmore was questioning in late September whether the state was responsible for the water crisis. But he also noted that state officials had signed off on the city’s switch to a new water source.

The next day, Muchmore wrote to Snyder and other top aides, complaining that critics were focusing on the lead issue and “looking for someone to blame.” But, he said, two state agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “can’t find evidence of a major change” in lead contamination.

Snyder released emails sent to him or by him. He did not release those of his staff. In Michigan, the executive office is exempt from public-records requests, but Snyder said he took the unprecedented step so people “know the truth.”

By October, the Snyder administration was forced to acknowledge lead concerns and help Flint return to the Detroit water system. His administration is engulfed in criticism.

Also Wednesday, Snyder asked President Barack Obama to reconsider the denial of a federal disaster declaration to address the crisis, saying its poses an “imminent and long-term threat” to residents.

Obama declared an emergency — qualifying the city for $5 million — but concluded that the high lead levels are not a disaster based on the legal requirement that disaster money is intended for natural events such as fires or floods. Snyder had estimated a need for up to $95 million over a year.

In his appeal letter, Snyder called the decision a “narrow reading” and likened the crisis to a flood, “given that qualities within the water, over a long term, damaged the city’s infrastructure in ways that were not immediately or easily detectable.”

The crisis “is a natural catastrophe in the sense that lead contamination into water is a natural process,” the governor wrote.

For a year and a half, Flint, Michigan, residents were consuming water contaminated by lead, despite repeated claims from state health officials that everything was fine. That revelation has led to a chorus of outrage, particularly for the young children who have suffered irreversible damage. PBS NewsHour’s William Brangham reports.

Flint’s water became contaminated with lead when the city switched its water source in 2014 as a cost-cutting measure while under the city was under state financial management.

The governor said the state and city cannot meet all the needs of Flint residents and painted a bleak picture of the city. He predicted that the crisis will lead to years, potentially decades, of health problems and economic losses, as well as infrastructure repairs that neither the city, county nor state can afford.

The lead— which can lead to behavior problems and learning disabilities in children and kidney ailments in adults — has left Flint residents unable to drink unfiltered tap water. The National Guard, state employees, local authorities and volunteers have been distributing lead tests, filters and bottled water. Snyder aides pledged that by the end of the week officials would visit every household in Flint to ensure they have water filters.

Democrats said Snyder, a second-term Republican, only recently acknowledged the magnitude of the fiasco, at least three months too late.

“This is the kind of disaster, the kind of failure to deliver basic services that hurts people’s trust in government,” House Minority Leader Tim Greimel said.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver refused to call for Snyder’s resignation while at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington, D.C., saying investigations should go forward. She said she wants Snyder to give Flint “the services and the money, the funds that we need to address the population.”

“People have said how they want things handled with him,” Weaver said Wednesday. “I’m staying focused on what I need to get from him right now.”

In his State of the State speech, Snyder committed $28 million more in the short term to pay for more filters, bottled water, school nurses, intervention specialists, testing and monitoring — on top of $10.6 million allocated in the fall. The money also would replace plumbing fixtures in schools with lead problems and could help Flint with unpaid water bills.

The mayor of Flint, Michigan said Wednesday the state should be held accountable for the city’s ongoing water issues. Video by Associated Press

The new round of funding, which requires approval from the GOP-led Legislature, is intended as another short-range step while Snyder works to get a better handle on the long-range costs.

The Michigan House on Wednesday approved Snyder’s $28 million request. The measure moves to the Senate for expected action next week.

Snyder plans to make a bigger request in his February budget proposal. He also announced the deployment of roughly 130 more National Guard members to the city.

Michigan’s top environmental regulator Dan Wyant resigned over the failure to ensure that the Flint River water was properly treated to keep lead from pipes from leaching into the water. Elevated blood-lead levels were found in two city zip codes.

The U.S. Justice Department is helping the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate, and GOP state Attorney General Bill Schuette has opened his own probe. The EPA is under scrutiny for its role, too.

Associated Press writers Ed White in Detroit, Tammy Webber in Chicago, John Flesher in Traverse City, Michigan, and Jesse Holland in Washington contributed to this report.

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