If the plot were to get any thicker, you’d think they were swimming in molten lead—actually, metaphorically some of those responsible for the Flint Water Crisis probably currently think that they are doing so. This morning we released another tranche of e-mails from DHHS, and while we are still waiting for a few more, based on what we have read we still mostly blame 3-5 employees at MDEQ for creating the Flint Water Crisis.
What is also increasingly clear, is that these same MDEQ employees further abused their power and trust, to derail other well-intentioned attempts by state officials to intervene and protect Flint Residents. MDEQ even initiated a “Flint Water Communications Plan” campaign at DHHS, to promote how safe Flint water was to drink, as a direct response to work by Virginia Tech (Flintwaterstudy.org) and Flint residents that were showing otherwise.
Interested readers and reporters can decide for themselves with the FOIA documents we have provided.
Early E-mail Purportedly from Governor’s Office
One of the our FOIA’d e-mails widely reported in the press came from someone named (or at least an alias of) “Nancy Grijalva.” The email was sent July 22nd, around the time that Michigan Radio and Curt Guyette of ACLU-Michigan were reporting on the Del Toral Memo/Virginia Tech’s sampling of very high lead in Lee-Anne Walters home.
MDEQ was starting to come under fire. The e-mail directs DHHS resources to “take a look at this <the lead in water problem>,” because people in Flint “are basically getting blown off by us.” NBC News is reporting that this e-mail actually came from Dennis Muchmore, then chief of staff at the Governor’s office.
Obviously, there is more to this story, and we are trying to get to the bottom of it, but the e-mail prompted an effort at DHHS to look at what was happening to the blood lead in Flint children. That quick look revealed a scientifically conclusive and concerning “spike” in children’s blood lead occurring in summer 2014 immediately after the switch to Flint River water. E-mails are clear that DHHS staff, ultimately convinced themselves at least, that this spike was probably NOT related to the water, and there is no evidence (so far) that serious alarms about potential public health concerns went back to the Governor’s office.
Do we blame DHHS staff for missing the implications of this first blood lead spike? Not really. As we said earlier, at the start of the work, DHHS reached out to MDEQ for background information, and they were clearly provided misinformation that skewed their interpretation of the health analysis. With the benefit of hindsight we do think it was a missed opportunity, but the reason it was missed was because of MDEQ claims that everything was fine with Flint water as illustrated below.
Separate “Flint Water Lead Communications Plan” at DHHS was Also Prompted by MDEQ
In what appears to be a completely separate effort, MDEQ co-opted DHHS resources to back up their misinformation campaign immediately after the now infamous August 4 confrontation between Flint residents and MDEQ in Lansing. Liane Shekter-Smith (MDEQ) reached out to DHHS for help with “Flint Lead Outreach,” and between early August through November 2015 various versions of a “Flint Water Lead Communication Plan” were developed at DHHS. The goal? To deal with “unsubstantiated” problems with lead in Flint water that “meets the federal drinking water standards and is safe for public consumption.” Moreover, “The aesthetic quality of the water, which may make the water unappealing to drink or use, does not make the water unsafe.”
The top of one plan clearly indicates “Talking points for DEQ” in handwritten notes. Another key part of the “campaign” which was tentatively titled: “Lead us to Water: Flint Clean Water,” was to talk up dangers of lead paint and lead dust. In our experience, this is a common ploy to draw public attention away from lead in water hazards.
Clearly, the intent of this whole plan was to directly counter “Wateryoufighting4” and “Flintwaterstudy,” because the planning kicked into high gear after Flintwaterstudy issued public health warnings that the water was not safe in late August and early September. One email said “Flint Lead is blowing up- may want to push meeting if we’re going to do something” and “if we’re going to take action it needs to be soon before the Virginia Tech University folks scandalize us all. In DC, it took them 6 years to respond. That’s not good.”
We do believe that elements of this (epically bad) plan were effectively guiding DHHS attitudes and actions from at least late August to late September. We stand by our criticism of DHHS actions during that relatively short time-frame. But we mainly fault them for being overly trusting of MDEQ—which is something that the Governor’s office can also be criticized for. Assuming the NBC report about the origins of our FOIA’d e-mail are accurate, it is clear that the Governor’s office was showing legitimate concern about the health dangers of the water to Flint children in mid-July.
Public Thanks to Eden Wells and Governor’s Task Force
We want to publicly acknowledge the assistance of Dr. Eden Wells (DHHS) in helping to get access to these e-mails– all of which were initially and wrongly withheld from us. Also, for the continued assistance and great work of the Governor’s After Action Task Force.
Flint Water Communications Plan
Primary Author: Dr. Marc Edwards
Acknowledgements: Siddhartha Roy