Newly released emails from the Michigan governor's office show officials in the central U.S. state initially belittled claims that residents in the impoverished city of Flint were being poisoned by lead that had seeped into its water supply.
One top aide to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder said the complaints about the city's brownish water supply drawn from the Flint River were coming from an "anti-everything group." Other critics of a lack of state assistance for one of its cities were accused of turning the issue into a "political football" and a pediatrician's worrisome findings were sarcastically dismissed as "data," with quotation marks around the word.
Snyder apologized this week to the city in his annual "state of the state" address to the Michigan legislature. He said he was releasing 273 pages of emails dealing with the Flint water quality to give residents "answers to your questions about what we've done and what we're doing to make this right."
State and federal officials are now handing out water filters and bottles of water in Flint. U.S. charitable groups have also donated water to the city of 100,000 people.
With the financially troubled city being run by a series of Snyder-appointed managers, Flint switched nearly two years ago from getting its water from Lake Huron, via the state's biggest city, Detroit, to a system drawing water from the Flint River, to save $1 million to $2 million a year.
But residents soon started questioning the quality of the water, complaining about its smell and odd brownish color. Tests subsequently showed there were elevated levels of lead in it.
Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in a person's body, with even low levels in children's blood affecting their IQ, attention spans and performance in school.
After 19 months of drawing water from the Flint River, the city last October switched back to the Detroit supply.
One email spoke of "initial hiccups" in switching the water supply in 2014, while another said that, despite the complaints, there was no imminent "threat to public health." Snyder's chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, said he "can't figure out why the state is responsible" for the Flint crisis, but conceded that one of its officials had signed off on the switch in water systems.
President Barack Obama met with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver this week at the White House, although he did not visit Flint when he was at an auto show Wednesday in Detroit. But in an interview with CBS News, Obama said he "would be beside myself' if he were a parent in Flint.
“What is inexplicable and inexcusable is once people figured out there was a problem and that there was lead in the water, the notion that immediately families were not notified, things were not shut down, that shouldn’t happen anywhere,” Obama said. “It’s also an indication that sometimes we downplay the role that an effective government has to play in protecting public health and safety of people and clearly the system broke down.”