New emails reveal the switch to the Flint River was not about saving money

Jan 25, 2016 at 2:10 pm
Since publishing this post we have followed up extensively on the KWA. 
1. Read about how the state and Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz were advised against joining the KWA here
2. Read about a questionable deal between Emergency Manager Kurtz and the KWA here. 

The national spotlight has focused on Flint in recent weeks (finally!) and one big question that keeps getting asked is why did the city of Flint, which was under Emergency Management at the time, elect to switch its water source from Lake Huron (vis-à-vis the Detroit Water and Sewer Department) to the notoriously vile Flint River? 

The answer getting the most airtime has to do with austerity. "In an attempt to save the cash-strapped city ... " so many article on Flint begin. Switching away from Detroit would save Flint a lot of money is what we've been told. The basic narrative: DWSD was really costly and so Flint decided to switch to the Karegnondi Water Authority under the premise the it would be cheaper. KWA, however, would not be ready for a few years, which is why Flint turned to the less desirable Flint River. While there is no excuse for connecting a city to a toxic water source, politicians in Lansing and individuals like Darnell Earley have maintained that their intentions were good (oh boy) —  Flint simply could't afford to keep getting water from Detroit, and the KWA was going to be the best, cheapest option in the long run, they say. 

Well there is just one problem. New emails obtained by Motor City Muckraker show that the deal to switch to KWA (and in turn the Flint River) was not (can we stress this. noooooot) cheaper. The plan in no way was about saving Flint money. 

Okay so here are the facts from MCM:  

After Flint announced that it was planning to switch water sources to KWA, Detroit countered saying that it could offer Flint a deal (actually it offered six different deals): Detroit could offer Flint a 50 percent reduction in what it had previously been paying DWSD. 

Now here's the puzzling part that throws a wrench into the whole cost-reduction narrative: The Detroit deal would have been cheaper than the KWA deal.

As then-DWSD Director Sue McCormick wrote in a April 15, 2013 email: "When compared over the 30 year horizon the DWSD proposal saves $800 million dollars or said differently – saves 20% over the KWA proposal." 

(see full email below) 

Despite a clear advantage from a cost (and cost-benefit) perspective, Flint said "No." 

On April 11, a few days before McCormick's email, State Treasurer Andy Dillon told Flint emergency manager Ed Kurtz that the city of Flint had the state's blessing to enter into an agreement with KWA and join in its construction. Dillon wrote in a letter to Kurtz that Lansing's approval would be effective on April 16 once it reviewed a final offer from the city of Detroit on Monday April 15. 

That Monday offer is the one McCormick bluntly explained in the email above that she sent to Jim Fausone (DWSD Board of Water Commissioners), William Wolfson (Chief Administrative and Compliance Officer/General Counsel at Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) and Bill Johnson (a Detroit-based media consultant who was working with DWSD at the time and gave the email to MCM). 

It's one that doesn't mince words. And yet Flint (via Lansing) still said no. 

What the ultimate decision-making looked like once DSWD gave the April 15, 2013 offer is somewhat unclear, since when Gov. Rick Snyder released all his emails surrounding Flint last week he elected to not disclose any emails from 2013 — the year when all the big decision making was happening.

Why Flint's EM leadership (the folks answering to Lansing) would say no to a deal that would save money — when the whole point of all this is to save money — raises a lot of questions. As one email from DSWD candidly put it: "the KWA pipeline can only be attributed to a ‘political’ objective that has nothing to do with the delivery – or the price – of water."

But here is the best part (we use the word "best" liberally — it's in fact the worst part), after Lansing started getting flack for the water in Flint, after the Flint Water Study started producing research showing elevated levels of lead in Flint households, ACLU-Michigan confronted Gov. Snyder's then-press secretary Sara Wurfel to find out what was going on. In a now somewhat infamous video created by Kate Levy and Curt Guyette, Wurfel — who is married to disgraced MDEQ spokesperson Brad Wurfel — told the reporters that the decision to switch water sources was because of Detroit. As Wurfel put it: "The Detroit Water and Sewer Department at the time, back last spring, said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna cut you off.’”

As is amply clear from these new DSWD emails this is not only false, but as far from the truth as a lie can possibly be. DSDW not only tried to accommodate Flint, but it presented six (emphasis added) proposals to try to maintain the relationship.  

MCM offers two suggestions of what was really behind this ultimately toxic — and not so cost-effective — move: Snyder's desire to privatize and break up DSWD or maybe Snyder's goal of opening up fracking opportunities around the new KWA pipeline. 


DWSD offer to Flint