What Did Members Of Team Snyder Know About Flint River Water, And When Did They Know It?

Rick and Sue Snyder at Ford Field in 2013 (image courtesy Rob Hall, available under a Creative Commons-Share Alike license)
Rick and Sue Snyder at Ford Field in 2013 (image courtesy Rob Hall, available under a Creative Commons-Share Alike license)

We already know that the severe lead contamination in the water supply of Flint, Michigan is a tragedy. But an alarming report from The Daily Beast reveals that this isn’t just a tragedy anymore. It’s a potentially criminal act. The emergency manager appointed by Governor Rick Snyder actually rejected using the Flint River as Flint’s water source–only to be overruled by members of the governor’s team in Lansing.

An investig/ation by The Daily Beast and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan into the Flint snafu found a horrifying disclosure from the city’s former chief financial officer, Jerry Ambrose. In 2012, Snyder named Ed Kurtz as Flint’s emergency manager, and Kurtz named Ambrose to help him restructure the once-proud city’s finances. One idea that was bandied about, and ultimately implemented, was tearing up Flint’s longstanding agreement to buy its water from Detroit. As we know now, that idea has turned out to be a catastrophic blunder. What we didn’t know until now, however, is that Kurtz and other members of Snyder’s team who were on the ground in Flint initially turned that idea down.

In 2014, several retired Flint municipal workers sued the state over Snyder’s sharp cuts to their health insurance. In a sworn deposition, Ambrose revealed that in December 2012, it was “determined not to be feasible” to switch Flint’s water supply to the Flint River. Ambrose told the retirees’ attorney, Alec Gibbs, that Kurtz made that decision after consulting with officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. When pressed by Gibbs, Ambrose said that MDEQ officials had told the members of the emergency management team that they would not support using the river as a water source. Gibbs asked for the specific reason, and Ambrose replied, “You’ll have to ask them.”

The timing of this initial decision is very significant. A mere 16 months later, it was decided to switch water sources after all. Four months ago, Flint public works director Howard Croft told the ACLU of Michigan that the decision was made in Lansing. Watch here.

Croft told the ACLU that the switch was made for financial reasons, and the review that ultimately led to the switch went “all the way to the governor’s office.” This raises a number of troubling questions. Did anyone on Snyder’s team know that the state’s own environmental department opposed this move? Did they know the reasoning behind MDEQ’s opposition? If the answer to the first two questions is “yes,” then why was the switch made anyway?

We already know that one part of the official account of this crisis is false. State officials have maintained that Flint opted to use the Flint River because Detroit was about to kick Flint off its system. However, Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter with the ACLU of Michigan, discovered that Snyder and his team left out a very critical fact. While the Detroit Water and Sewer Department did indeed tear up its 50-year contract with Flint, it almost immediately began talks to work out a new pact. Guyette obtained a letter from Flint’s then-emergency manager, Darnell Earley, informing DWSD that it would be switching to the Flint River as of April 17, 2014. And if Croft is to be believed, that decision was made on orders from Snyder’s team in Lansing.

One thing is for certain–if I were working in that office at the time this decision was made, I’d have a lawyer on speed dial. If it does turn out that the governor’s team knew the Flint River was unsafe, no amount of spin that Snyder’s new PR crew puts on this will be enough to save Snyder’s bacon. Guyette thinks we’ll only know what the real story is if Snyder releases all emails related to state business–including those sent from his governmental and personal accounts. As Guyette puts it, Snyder needs to “tell the whole truth, not just convenient parts of it.”

But we shouldn’t have to wait that long for the truth to come out. Given the prospect that the decision to switch sources was made despite someone knowing the Flint River was unsafe, I hope that a state or federal prosecutor has the guts to start a criminal investigation–and the sooner, the better. After all, the only way we’ll get definitive answers for how this tragedy unfolded is if someone puts those involved in the process under oath.

Darrell is a 30-something graduate of the University of North Carolina who considers himself a journalist of the old school. An attempt to turn him into a member of the religious right in college only succeeded in turning him into the religious right's worst nightmare--a charismatic Christian who is an unapologetic liberal. His desire to stand up for those who have been scared into silence only increased when he survived an abusive three-year marriage. You may know him on Daily Kos as Christian Dem in NC. Follow him on Twitter @DarrellLucus or connect with him on Facebook. Click here to buy Darrell a Mello Yello.