The Slatest

Governor’s Office Learned of Flint Water Legionnaires’ Outbreak Link Nine Months Before Warning Public

A sign on a the front of a building warns residents to filter their water Jan. 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

On Jan. 13, less than three weeks ago, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced the drinking water for Genesee County, the county encompassing Flint, could be linked to two outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease in the area. Snyder said he had been notified of public health emergency days before the announcement. A new set of emails released Thursday, however, show that the outbreak, and its link to a cost-cutting switch to drinking water from the Flint River, was well-known to high-ranking officials in the Snyder administration as much as nine months earlier, in March 2015.

“There were at least 87 cases [of Legionnaires’ disease] across Genesee County during a 17-month period, including nine deaths, but the public was never told about the increase when it was happening—even after an initial wave of more than 40 cases was known by early 2015,” according to the Detroit Free Press. The harm done is clear; and the emails are straightforward, unambiguous, and damning. Here’s an example from the Free Press:

Former Department of Environmental Quality Communications Director Brad Wurfel sent the e-mail on March 13, 2015, to Harvey Hollins, who is Snyder’s director of urban initiatives. It was copied to Dan Wyant, who was [Department of Environmental Quality] director at the time. “More than 40 cases reported since last April,” Wurfel said in the e-mail. “That’s a significant uptick. More than all the cases reported in the last five years or more combined.” Wurfel said that Jim Henry of the Genesee County Health Department is “putting up the flare,” and has “made the leap formally in his e-mail that the uptick in cases is directly attributable to the river as a drinking water source.”

Here’s the email from Jim Henry from Genesee County Health Department on March 10.

“The increase of the illnesses closely corresponds with the time frame of the switch to the Flint River water. The majority of the cases reside or have an association with the city,” Henry, Genesee County’s environmental health supervisor, wrote March 10 to Flint leaders, the city’s state-appointed emergency financial manager and the state DEQ. “This situation has been explicitly explained to MDEQ and many of the city’s officials,” Henry said in the e-mail that was forwarded by the DEQ to a Snyder aide three days later. “I want to make sure in writing that there are no misunderstandings regarding this significant and urgent public health issue.”

“Legionnaires’ disease is a pneumonia caused by bacteria in the lungs,” according to the Associated Press. “People get sick if they inhale mist or vapor from contaminated water systems, hot tubs or cooling systems.”

Read more in Slate about Flint, Michigan’s drinking water emergency.