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?


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?


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.

What We're Following See More »
Wasserman Schultz Stripped of Convention Duties
3 hours ago

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz "will not have a major speaking role or preside over daily convention proceedings this week," and is under increasing pressure to resign. The DNC Rules Committee on Saturday named Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcia Fudge as "permanent chair of the convention." At issue: internal DNC emails leaked by Wikileaks that show how "the DNC favored Clinton during the primary and tried to take down Bernie Sanders by questioning his religion."

New Round of Polls Show a Tight Race
2 days ago
  • A Rasmussen Reports poll shows Donald Trump ahead of Hillary Clinton, 43%-42%, the fourth week in a row he's led the poll (one of the few poll in which he's led consistently of late).
  • A Reuters/Ipsos survey shows Clinton leading 40%-36%. In a four-way race, she maintains her four-point lead, 39%-35%, with Gary Johnson and Jill Stein pulling 7% and 3%, respectively.
  • And the LA Times/USC daily tracking poll shows a dead heat, with Trump ahead by about half a percentage point.
Candidates Deadlocked in Ohio
3 days ago
Clinton Dominates Among Younger Voters
3 days ago

In an election between two candidates around 70 years of age, millennials strongly prefer one over the other. Hillary Clinton has a 47%-30% edge among votes 18 to 29. She also leads 46%-36% among voters aged 30 to 44.

Clinton Leads Trump Among Latinos by Nearly 70 Points
3 days ago

According to an online tracking poll released by New Latino Voice, Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump among Latino voters, attracting support from 81 percent of Latino voters, to just 12 percent support for Trump. The results of this poll are consistent with those from a series of other surveys conducted by various organizations. With Pew Research predicting the 2016 electorate will be 12 percent Hispanic, which would be the highest ever, Trump could be in serious trouble if he can't close the gap.