LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A day after doctors reported high levels of lead in Flint children, Gov. Rick Snyder’s top aide told him the “real responsibility” for the city’s water issues rested with local government officials, emails released Wednesday showed.
Then-chief of staff Dennis Muchmore also told the governor that residents were “caught in a swirl of misinformation” about lead contamination and that it was up to local leaders to confront the issue, according to the emails.
“Of course, some of the Flint people respond by looking for someone to blame instead of working to reduce anxiety,” Muchmore wrote. “We can’t tolerate increased lead levels in any event, but it’s really the city’s water system that needs to deal with it.”
In a Sept. 25 email, Muchmore said he could not “figure out why the state is responsible” before noting that former state Treasurer Andy Dillon had signed off on the city’s switch to a new water source. “So we’re not able to avoid the subject.”
Muchmore also said two state agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could not “find evidence of a major change” in lead levels.
By early October, the Snyder administration was forced to acknowledge the lead concerns and help Flint return to the Detroit water system.
The two-term Republican released the emails a day after his annual State of the State speech in which he apologized again for the emergency and pledged to act. He called the release of his emails — which are exempt from Michigan’s public-records law — “unprecedented” but necessary so people “know the truth.”
Snyder released emails sent to him or by him. He did not release those of his staff.
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 Flint River water was not properly treated to keep lead from pipes from leaching into the supply. Elevated blood-lead levels were found in two city zip codes.
Also Wednesday, Snyder asked President Barack Obama to reconsider the denial of a federal disaster declaration to address the crisis, saying it 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.
The community about 75 miles north of Detroit, has about 100,000 residents, with about 40 percent of them living below the poverty line. The population is nearly 60 percent black.
The governor said the state and city cannot meet all of Flint’s needs and painted a bleak picture of the city’s future. 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.
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 needed to address the problem.
“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 annual 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 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 crisis.
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.