Snyder Concedes Flint is His “Katrina,” a Failure of Leadership

Michigan governor vows to earn back public’s trust after lead poisoning on his watch.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
Ron Fournier
Jan. 18, 2016, 5:38 p.m.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder con­ceded Monday that his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand­ling of the Flint wa­ter crisis is a stain on his leg­acy, re­flects poorly on his lead­er­ship, and is aptly com­pared to Pres­id­ent Bush’s mis­hand­ling of Hur­ricane Kat­rina.

“It’s a dis­aster,” he said when asked about the com­par­is­on some crit­ics have made to the 2005 nat­ur­al dis­aster in New Or­leans that be­came a sym­bol of gov­ern­ment mis­man­age­ment—city, state, and fed­er­al. “It’s clearly a neg­at­ive on what we’ve ac­com­plished since I’ve been gov­ernor.”

In a wide-ran­ging in­ter­view on the eve of his state of the state ad­dress, Snyder said he knew last sum­mer about his top aide’s con­cerns that Flint res­id­ents were “get­ting blown off” by the Michigan’s De­part­ment of En­vir­on­ment­al Qual­ity. The MD­EQ waved off his of­fice’s con­cerns, Snyder said. He ac­cep­ted re­spons­ib­il­ity for the lack of ad­equate fol­low up, but the twice-elec­ted GOP gov­ernor said he would not heed calls for his resig­na­tion.

“I want to solve this prob­lem,” Snyder said. “I don’t want to walk away from it.” Both MD­EQ’s dir­ect­or and chief spokes­man were forced to resign, and Snyder has taken sev­er­al steps—al­beit be­latedly—to help Flint identi­fy the ex­tent of the con­tam­in­a­tion and to re­spond to it. He said more ac­tion will be re­vealed in Tues­day night’s ad­dress.

The slow and pos­sibly deadly pois­on­ing of Flint, a hard-bit­ten in­dus­tri­al town of nearly 100,000, began in April 2014, when the city switched its wa­ter source from De­troit to the Flint River to save money. Res­id­ents’ con­cerns were ig­nored for 19 months un­til in­de­pend­ent tests by Vir­gin­ia Tech and a loc­al hos­pit­al re­vealed dan­ger­ous levels of lead ex­pos­ure.

Only then did Michigan’s en­vir­on­ment­al agency ad­mit to vi­ol­at­ing fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions re­quir­ing the treat­ment of Flint’s wa­ter to avoid cor­ro­sion of the city’s an­cient wa­ter pipes, a lapse that caused the lead pois­on­ing. The fate­ful de­cision to switch Flint’s wa­ter source was made by an emer­gency city man­ager ap­poin­ted by Snyder.

In early 2015, months be­fore the lead pois­on­ing was pub­licly an­nounced, an ana­lyst at the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency dis­covered dan­ger­ous levels of lead in Flint’s wa­ter. An ap­pointee of Pres­id­ent Obama for­bade the res­ults from be­ing re­leased to the pub­lic.

Last month, I wrote a flat­ter­ing column about Snyder’s lead­er­ship style that did not ad­dress the Flint wa­ter crisis. We re­vis­ited the is­sue Monday as part of a broad­er column I had in the works (How Gov­ern­ment — and This Colum­nist — Failed Flint”). This is an ed­ited tran­script:

FOURNI­ER: The last time we were to­geth­er, we talked about your the­ory on lead­er­ship and your man­age­ment style, which I bot­tom-lined by say­ing you have as much fun—and pay as much at­ten­tion—to gov­ern­ing as you do polit­ics. I called it a “re­fresh­ing ap­proach.” I’ve spent the last couple of days knock­ing around Flint. Would you agree with me that the last word you would use for your over­all lead­er­ship with re­gard to Flint would be re­fresh­ing? It’s been poor.

SNYDER: Yeah. It’s ter­rible to have the situ­ation in Flint hap­pen and I’m re­spons­ible as the gov­ernor of the state. With­in our team there were clearly things that shouldn’t have happened and so you have to take re­spons­ib­il­ity for that and the real is­sue is, giv­en that they’ve happened, how to you ad­dress them and make sure it doesn’t hap­pen again …

FOURNI­ER: On Ju­ly 22, 2015, your chief of staff, Den­nis Much­more, sent off the email that we’ve since seen where he was telling (De­part­ment of En­vir­on­ment­al Qual­ity) folks that they were blow­ing off the people of Flint. Did he let you know at the time that he felt Flint was be­ing blown off by state of­fi­cials?

SNYDER: Again, the tone was not ap­pro­pri­ate so Den­nis was fol­low­ing through and ad­dress­ing the tone is­sue in par­tic­u­lar but also ask­ing some good ques­tions about the sub­stance. I mean: Were they do­ing the work they needed to do? And then they came back and re­af­firmed there was not a prob­lem in Flint.

FOURNI­ER: What I’m ask­ing you is, did you know in Ju­ly that Den­nis was con­cerned about the tone?

SNYDER: Yes.

FOURNI­ER: Did you know as well that Den­nis was con­cerned about re­ports about the wa­ter?

SNYDER: Again, when we get re­ports, our prac­tice is to go ask those ques­tions to make sure people are com­ing up with the right de­cisions.

FOURNI­ER: In hind­sight, should there have not been more fol­low up and push down by Den­nis and your­self?

SNYDER: In hind­sight, you can al­ways say that there are oth­er things that could have been done. The chal­lenge in this par­tic­u­lar case is that these is­sues tend to be very tech­nic­al in terms of test pro­ced­ures and whole pro­to­cols and things like that—and to put it in con­text, the people in this de­part­ment failed in this par­tic­u­lar case cata­stroph­ic­ally in my view in some ways, but if you look at the back­grounds, these are people with sci­entif­ic back­grounds, tech­nic­al back­grounds that had been do­ing this for dec­ades.

FOURNI­ER: Yes, but that’s hardly an ex­cuse be­cause that back­ground did show them that people in Flint were be­ing poisoned and they knew it.

SNYDER: I’m not sure they knew it. That was the point. They didn’t see it.

FOURNI­ER: How could they not have seen it?

SNYDER: Again, that’s the point of hav­ing in­vest­ig­a­tions take place. I don’t think you can draw con­clu­sions yet as to their motives or thought pro­cesses versus say­ing it wasn’t seen. That’s clear.

FOURNI­ER: I haven’t got­ten to the motives yet, but how could they not have known by the sum­mer of 2015 that tests had shown there was lead in the wa­ter?

SNYDER: They showed there was lead in the wa­ter but not at a level re­quired to take ac­tion, and the ques­tion is, in ret­ro­spect, do you have to wait un­til the fed­er­al ac­tion level or should have been more pro­act­ive?

FOURNI­ER: And what is the an­swer to that ques­tion?

SNYDER: In this case, it’s clear. Should have been more pro­act­ive.

FOURNI­ER: You do ac­cept re­spons­ib­il­ity for not push­ing down hard enough on your ap­pointees?

SNYDER: Yes.

FOURNI­ER: EPA tests found as early as Feb. 15, 2015, that there was (ex­cess­ive) lead in the wa­ter. How soon did you find out?

SNYDER: I’m not sure of the spe­cif­ic date in terms of say­ing, ‘There is any lead in the wa­ter.’ Some­time dur­ing 2015. Again, they presen­ted some of the in­form­a­tion about hav­ing to do a second set of tests.

FOURNI­ER: Was it sum­mer or spring?

SNYDER: It was sum­mer­time.

FOURNI­ER: And who was it that let you know?

SYN­DER: It would have been the dir­ect­or of the DEQ.

FOURNI­ER: The EPA knew in Feb­ru­ary that there were (ex­treme) levels of lead. Do you have any idea why they didn’t let you know?

SNYDER: I think there are is­sues at the EPA through the course of all this.

FOURNI­ER: What do you think of that? What do you think of the way (EPA Re­gion­al Dir­ect­or Susan) Hed­man handled her job?

SNYDER: I think that mag­ni­fied this. The checks and bal­ances that the­or­et­ic­ally could have been there didn’t work. This is a mess. I mean, I feel ter­rible about all this hap­pen­ing. And that’s why I’m work­ing hard to do everything I can to re­pair the dam­age and then ac­tu­ally work to strengthen Flint and the cit­izens …

FOURNI­ER: Shouldn’t you have done more, quick­er?

SNYDER: Again, in ret­ro­spect, the an­swer is yes. I mean, we did a lot but more could have been done.

FOURNI­ER: But even after in mid-Septem­ber when the (Hur­ley Chil­dren’s Hos­pit­al) res­ults came out and it was clear that there were kids who were already poisoned and be­ing af­fected, it really took an­oth­er month or so be­fore the state got geared up. Cor­rect?

SNYDER: From the time it was iden­ti­fied by the DEQ that there was a prob­lem with the lead in the wa­ter and it was con­firmed by (the state Health De­part­ment) that there were el­ev­ated blood levels, we took ac­tion with­in a couple of days …

FOURNI­ER: Is there go­ing to be a com­mit­ment from the state, a com­mit­ment from any­body, that whatever these kids need, they will get?

SNYDER: We are go­ing to make a long-term com­mit­ment. This com­mit­ment goes on for dec­ades.

FOURNI­ER: Is there go­ing to be a dol­lar fig­ure at­tached?

SNYDER: That’s something that’s go­ing to take some time to de­vel­op …

FOURNI­ER: (Crit­ics have) called this your Kat­rina. Do you think that’s un­fair?

SNYDER: No. It’s a dis­aster.

FOURNI­ER: What is the lead­er­ship par­al­lel between Kat­rina—where Pres­id­ent Bush star­ted, how he handled it, and where he ended up—and you?

SNYDER: I didn’t fol­low all the Kat­rina steps and all the is­sues so I couldn’t do that for you.

FOURNI­ER: But you do see this as a black mark on your lead­er­ship and a po­ten­tial op­por­tun­ity to turn things around?

SNYDER: It’s clearly a neg­at­ive on what we’ve ac­com­plished since I’ve been gov­ernor. And I don’t even de­scribe it as an op­por­tun­ity I just want to make sure we’re do­ing whatever we can to deal with the dam­age and ad­dress the people of Flint in a con­struct­ive way …

FOURNI­ER: Giv­en what we now know they knew, how in the world does the EPA and the MD­EQ not act to alert the pub­lic?

SNYDER: I think that’s what will come out of this in the longer term. This shows that there were mul­tiple fail­ures at mul­tiple levels.

FOURNI­ER: Which gets me back to the thing that you and I have talked about, this idea of trust in gov­ern­ment and trust in all of our in­sti­tu­tions. It seems to me like Kat­rina (and oth­er high-pro­file fail­ures of lead­er­ship), this is an ex­ample in which every in­sti­tu­tion that was sup­posed to help these people … let them down. How are people ever go­ing to trust not just state gov­ern­ment, but every in­sti­tu­tion?

SNYDER: That’s the nature of trust. Trust is something that once you lose it, it’s much harder to earn it back. So that’s the point we’re at.

FOURNI­ER: You’ve lost some of the pub­lic’s trust?

SNYDER: Yes. And that’s hard, that’s aw­ful.

FOURNI­ER: How does that af­fect you per­son­ally?

SNYDER: It makes you feel ter­rible. It’s a ter­rible thing to hap­pen. I spent most of my ca­reer—that’s why went in to do this: to im­prove things, be­cause I didn’t think things were be­ing done as well as they could be done. It shows there are chal­lenges even when you come in from the out­side. You think you can bring new (think­ing). This was a case where we had people who had been in these jobs for years, (who) hadn’t got­ten the change memo yet say­ing there’s got to be a bet­ter way of do­ing things. So they kept do­ing things the way they have …

FOURNI­ER: We talked about trust. One way to get trust back is trans­par­ency. You could re­lease all of your emails on Flint.

SNYDER: I’m con­sid­er­ing do­ing that.

FOURNI­ER: Why not just do it?

SNYDER: Again, I haven’t made a de­cision yet. I was just asked. And to be open with you there are a lot of mov­ing parts with re­spect of do­ing a speech to­mor­row night …

FOURNI­ER: Some people are call­ing for your resig­na­tion. Do you think it’s a le­git­im­ate re­quest?

SNYDER: The re­quest is com­ing more from people out­side Flint than in­side Flint.

FOURNI­ER: There are people in­side Flint who want you out. I talked to some of them today.

SNYDER: If you’re in Flint and you’re af­fected by it I can see a wide range of opin­ions on lots of things.

FOURNI­ER: Is resign­ing something you’re con­sid­er­ing?

SNYDER: No, be­cause as soon as it came to my at­ten­tion we star­ted to take ser­i­ous ac­tion. What I’d say is I feel ter­rible about it, though, and it’s clear that changes needed to be made in my ad­min­is­tra­tion and I think long-term, there are things that need to be im­proved.

FOURNII­ER: And one of those things is not the gov­ernor quit­ting?

SNYDER: I want to solve this prob­lem. I don’t want to walk away from it.

Cor­rec­tion: Ori­gin­al post in­cor­rectly stated the year of the EPA ana­lyst’s find­ings.

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