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Saturday, 27 February 2016 00:00

Top Snyder aides urged going back to Detroit water

Written by Matthew Dolan and Paul Egan, Detroit Free Press
Valerie Brader, pictured, deputy legal counsel and senior policy adviser to the governor, wrote in an October 2014 email to chief of staff Dennis Muchmore and other top aides to Gov. Rick Snyder, saying the return to Detroit’s water system for the city of Flint made economic and environmental sense, calling it an urgent matter to fix. Valerie Brader, pictured, deputy legal counsel and senior policy adviser to the governor, wrote in an October 2014 email to chief of staff Dennis Muchmore and other top aides to Gov. Rick Snyder, saying the return to Detroit’s water system for the city of Flint made economic and environmental sense, calling it an urgent matter to fix. State of Michigan

The city of Flint, Snyder's top legal aide wrote in October 2014, “should try to get back on the Detroit system as a stopgap ASAP before this thing gets too far out of control.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly named Darnell Earley as the emergency manager who authorized Flint's 2013 decision to buy water from the Karegnondi Water Authority. Edward Kurtz was the state-appointed emergency manager in Flint at the time.

Two of Gov. Rick Snyder’s top lawyers privately advocated moving the city of Flint back to the Detroit water system because of quality problems only months after Flint began to draw its drinking water from the Flint River and treat it at its own plant in mid-2014, according to a review of e-mails made public Friday by the governor's office.

The governor's top aides discussed the city's water-quality problems as early as the fall of 2014, according to a review of 550 e-mails released by the Snyder administration.

Valerie Brader, deputy legal counsel and senior policy adviser to Snyder, raised problems with Flint River water in an e-mail to the governor's Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore and other top aides on Oct. 14, 2014.

She argued for returning the city to Detroit’s system drawn from Lake Huron, saying it made economic and environmental sense for an "urgent matter to fix." She cited bacterial contamination in the treated river water and reduced quality that caused "GM to leave due to rusted parts."

"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 Muchmore and three other top Snyder aides.

Michael Gadola, then the governor’s legal counsel, echoed those concerns in an e-mail responding to Brader and sent to the governor’s top aides. He called the idea of using the Flint River as a drinking water source “downright scary.”

 

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 12 minutes after Brader's e-mail.

The governor's top lawyer had a personal connection to Flint: He grew up there.

"Too bad (former Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley) didn't ask me what I thought, though I'm sure he heard it from plenty of others," Gadola wrote to Brader, Muchmore, then-communications director Jarrod Agen and Deputy Chief of Staff Elizabeth Clement. "My Mom is a City resident. Nice to know she's drinking water with elevated chlorine levels and fecal coliform."

In an interview Thursday, Muchmore, who now works for a law firm, said cost was a major impediment in discussions with lawyers and others about whether Flint should return to Detroit's regional system because of fears over water contamination. Muchmore said he and the others had discussed their concerns with the governor.

“We shared them,” he said.

Those concerns, however, did not lead to a change for almost a year.

Instead, in January 2015, Flint's state-appointed emergency manager, Earley, rejected the idea to go back to the Detroit system, electing to stay with the Flint River as a water source now suspected of corroding service lines and fixtures, causing lead to leach from pipes throughout the city. It wasn't until October 2015 that the city switched back to the Detroit system, which draws it's water from Lake Huron, after using Flint River water for 18 months.

As a result, the city was pushed into a public health crisis, with a federal state of emergency declared last month with President Barack Obama's approval. Nearly 100,000 residents have been told to use lead filters or consume bottle water while local, state and federal officials work to clear the city's drinking water of elevated lead levels.

Brader said in an interview Thursday that after she sent her e-mail, she and another senior aide to the governor, Richard Baird, jointly called Earley. The problems with Flint's water were expected to dissipate and were unlikely to reoccur, Earley told them, according to Brader.

"I understood that point of view," Brader said when asked whether she agreed with Earley's assessment. That's where the discussion about switching back to Detroit's water system essentially ended, she said. Brader never discussed the idea of switching Flint back to the Detroit system with the governor until this year, she said.

Reached Thursday, Baird said he remembered the joint call with Brader to Earley, but did not recall details. Earley, through a spokesman, declined an interview Thursday.

It was not until October 2015 that Snyder approved Flint's switch back to Detroit's water system, using a combination of city, state and private foundation funds at an estimated cost of $12 million.

"We went back to the Detroit water system to try to get them to agree to something (Flint) could actually afford," Muchmore said Thursday, in describing the delay. "They weren’t able to do it.”

Muchmore said that there were several important issues affecting the future of the city's water that have not received enough attention by reporters.

“There’s a failure to cover the financial situation in Flint and the fact they were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and they really didn’t have any resources or assets to rely on," said Muchmore, who departed as the chief of staff last month to become chairman of the government relations and regulatory practice group for the Detroit-based Honigman law firm. "The whole idea of having an emergency manager was to help the city survive. When you’re talking about helping a city survive, that’s pretty important.”

The state recruited Bob Daddow, an Oakland County administrator, to try to work something out with Detroit, according to Muchmore. He couldn’t do it, though Daddow ultimately smoothed the deal when Flint did go back to Detroit service in October 2015, Muchmore said.

Other impediments included the lingering cost issues between Flint and Detroit, meaning any resolution would be "complicated. "It wasn’t easy to do,” Muchmore said.

Gadola's personal connection to Flint and his strong concerns about the river water, Muchmore said, “made all the rest of us concerned about it. That made us all ask why we were doing this. It became a real cost issue, both for DWSD, and for Flint.”

Gadola was appointed to the Michigan Court of Appeals by Snyder in December 2014. The judge did not reply to a request for comment through a court spokesman on Thursday.

The city's journey away from Detroit and toward the Flint River as a drinking source started in 2013 when Flint made the decision to leave the Detroit water system and needed another source while it waited to join a new, regional water system, the Karegnondi Water Authority. Part of the desire to break from Detroit, some officials said, was annual rate increases that had worked out to about 21% a year from 1980 to 2003.

That year, the Flint City Council voted, 7-1, to join the new authority, and Edward Kurtz, the state-appointed emergency manager overseeing Flint at the time, signed an order to make it happen.

Those decisions eventually prompted Detroit to exercise a 12-month termination clause in its contract with Flint. The city began searching for a new water source until the Karegnondi pipeline from Lake Huron was completed and turned to its longtime backup source, the Flint River.

Though there were further discussions about Flint staying on Detroit water until the new pipeline was completed, the parties couldn't reach an agreement.

The engineering firm Rowe had already completed a report titled "Analysis of the Flint River as a Permanent Water Supply for the City of Flint," for then-Mayor Dayne Walling. The report noted that treating river water on a daily basis was going to be challenging and more expensive than treating lake water, but concluded it could be done if improvements to Flint's water treatment plant were made.

The DEQ, in April 2014, issued a construction permit for improvements to the Flint Water Treatment Plant and the city began using the Flint River as its new water source.

But the city did not provide corrosion-control treatment to the more corrosive river water, and the DEQ did not require it. Residents soon complained about the water quality, from the color and smell, to issues about bacteria and developing rashes.

By early 2015, higher lead levels were showing up in the water. The DEQ initially dismissed the reports, until September when a pediatrician showed that blood lead levels in Flint children spiked after the water switch. After months of telling residents the water was safe, state officials finally acknowledged they had applied the wrong standard to Flint when they supervised the switch — and did not do the necessary corrosion control.

But until this week, the public did not know about the early anxiety voiced by the governor's top aides.

Part of the reason may have been because Brader did not include an agency subject to open records laws.

"P.S. Note: I have not copied DEQ on this message for FOIA reasons," Brader wrote of the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Freedom of Information Act, which allows members of the public to see state employee documents. Michigan is one of only two states that exempts the governor's office and Legislature from public records disclosure.

Link to original article from Detroit Free Press

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