As the country attempts to untangle exactly who is to blame for the residents of Flint, Mich. being forced to use lead-poisoned water for well over a year, the Michigan ACLU has dug up a little bit of evidence that at least absolves one important person.
Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the Michigan ACLU, writes in the Daily Beast about a previously undiscovered deposition given by a man named Jerry Ambrose in a civil case related to the health care benefits of Flint’s retired municipal workers. At the time Ambrose was deposed in 2014, he was working under Ed Kurtz, who at that point was Flint’s emergency manager, given full control of the city via the controversial program enacted by currently embattled governor Rick Snyder.
Per Guyette, the following exchange took place between Ambrose and an attorney:
“There was brief evaluation of whether the city would be better off to simply use the Flint River as its primary source of water over the long term,” Ambrose said. “That was determined not to be feasible.”
“Who determined it wasn’t feasible?” Gibbs asked.
“It was a collective decision of the emergency management team based on conversations with the [Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] that indicated they would not be supportive of the use of the Flint River on a long-term basis as a primary source of water,” Ambrose answered.
“What was the reason they gave?” Gibbs asked.
“You’ll have to ask them,” Ambrose said.
Guyette doesn’t explain why exactly the topic of Flint’s water was raised, and the meaning of this back-and-forth itself requires a bit of context. It was under Ambrose and his boss Kurtz that Flint decided to stop buying water from the city of Detroit. From our initial story on Flint’s water crisis:
The move to detach Flint from Detroit’s prohibitively expensive water supply in favor of a more affordable plan that would draw water from a pipeline connected to nearby Lake Huron was made in April 2013 by a man named Ed Kurtz, who had been appointed as Flint’s “emergency manager” by Snyder under a program that was controversial from its inception. Kurtz’s decision was backed up by city council in a 7-1 vote, but Flint would still have to find an interim source of water while the Lake Huron pipeline was being constructed.
Kurtz, acting in his role as emergency manager, and the city of Flint collectively decided to move Flint away from Detroit’s water and towards a planned pipeline that would pull water from nearby Lake Huron. At the time, simply moving Flint away from Detroit’s water was accepted as a necessary cost-saving measure, though newly released emails seem to indicate that perhaps it wasn’t about saving money after all.
What’s in dispute is exactly who chose to use the corrosive Flint River water in the period between Flint disconnecting from Detroit and hooking up to Lake Huron, a decision that happened when Kurtz had already been succeeded by a man named Darnell Earley.
Though Ambrose cryptically declines to state a reason, his deposition would seem to indicate that he and Kurtz, in consult with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, were aware that the Flint River was an unsafe source of drinking water when they evaluated it as a longterm option. Still, that’s just one implication decoded from Ambrose’s deposition, and it’s complicated by the fact that the head of the MDEQ resigned last December after his department botched several tests of Flint’s tap water.
It’s also possible that decision-makers in Flint thought that the Flint River would be safe as a temporary, but not permanent, source of water. They would have been gravely wrong, as we all now know, but it might at least explain the discrepancy. Guyette points out that in an email obtained by the ACLU, Earley, the second emergency manager, told the Detroit Water and Sewage Department that the city “has actively pursued” the Flint River as its temporary source:
“Thank you for the correspondence [...] which provides Flint with the option of continuing to purchase water from DWSD… The City of Flint has actively pursued using the Flint River as a temporary water source… There will be no need for Flint to continue purchasing water to serve its residents and businesses after April 17, 2014.”
Though Guyette’s report doesn’t exactly pin the Flint crisis on any one person—if such a thing can even be done—it does at least reinforce what we believe to be an important part of the timeline: that the decision to take water from the Flint River was made after Kurtz left the position of emergency manager.
The ultimate question, of course, is the extent to which Gov. Rick Snyder is to blame. Given that the city was under the direction of two emergency managers during the extended period in which key decisions about Flint’s water source were made, and that the emergency manager program was unprecedented until Snyder implemented it, it’s impossible for him to escape culpability even in the hypothetical scenarios in which he has the most distance from the decisions that resulted in the crisis.
Guyette, though, makes a more direct claim based on an interview conducted by the Michigan ACLU with Howard Croft, the former director of public works in Flint.
In the interview, Croft said that the decision to use the river was a financial one, with a review that “went up through the state.”
“All the way to the governor’s office?” the ACLU of Michigan asked him.
“All the way to the governor’s office,” Croft replied.