Rick Snyder's Office Was Warned Of Deadly Legionnaires Outbreak, Did Nothing

Yet another bright red flag, missed.

02/04/2016 08:50 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2016
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) said he didn't know the Flint area had seen a deadly rise in Legionnaires' disease. 

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has said he didn't know about an uptick in deadly Legionnaires' disease around Flint until this year, but newly released emails show a Snyder aide had been warned last March. 

Snyder's office said the agency that has already accepted blame for much of the Flint water crisis dropped the ball on the Legionnaires' disease issue and nobody told the governor about it. The Michigan Democratic Party has now called on Snyder to resign. 

In a March 2015 email obtained by the liberal watchdog group Progress Michigan, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's spokesman told Snyder aide Harvey Hollins that more than 40 cases of Legionnaires' had been reported since the previous April, when Snyder's administration oversaw Flint's switch to the Flint River as its water source. 

"That's a significant uptick -- more than all the cases in the last five years or more combined," the spokesman, Brad Wurfel, said in the email to Hollins, the governor's director of urban initiatives.

Flint residents had been complaining about their water all along, saying it was discolored and caused rashes, but Wurfel told Hollins the lower-ranking official who'd raised the Legionnaires' issue was out of line. 

"He's made the leap formally in his email that the uptick in cases is directly attributable to the river as a drinking water source -- this is beyond irresponsible, given that is his [sic] department that has failed to do the necessary traceback work to provide any conclusive evidence of of where the outbreak is sourced," Wurfel wrote. 

Snyder's office said in a statement Thursday evening the Legionnaires' problem hadn't come to the governor's attention until last month. Flint and surrounding Genesee County has seen 10 fatal cases of the unusual respiratory illness since the water switch. 

"When Harvey Hollins received the March email, he requested the DEQ look into the concerns, check with its experts, and get the facts," the statement said. "If the concerns were determined to be credible, the director was to bring the issue to the attention of the Governor."

Snyder acknowledged in January a potential link between the spike in Legionnaires' disease and the water. Documents previously obtained by The Flint Journal showed some state officials long suspected a connection. 

Snyder's office certainly knew something was up with Flint's water early last year, as residents had been loudly complaining. Last month the governor's office released a batch of the governor's emails on the subject, including a February message in which the Department of Environmental Quality essentially told the governor not to worry about "that brown water that angry residents were holding up in jugs for the media cameras last week." 

Legionnaires' disease is a pneumonia-like illness caused by bacteria that can only infect humans when inhaled in water vapor, not through drinking. The Legionnaires' problem came to public attention in January; last fall the Snyder administration admitted it had failed to treat the water correctly, resulting in a spike in the number of Flint kids with high blood lead levels. Lead is a deadly neurotoxin that can damage children's brains, among other things.

Before it 'fessed up to not ensuring correct water treatment in October, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality assured the governor's office and the public the lead issue wasn't serious. The agency's director resigned at the end of the year. 

Michigan Democratic party chairman Brandon Dillon called on Snyder to step down, too. 

“There is a limit to how many times you can play dumb when it comes to events and actions that take place on your watch," Dillon said in a statement. 

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