Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's chief of staff told him in an email that the city of Flint was responsible for the water poisoning crisis and he couldn't figure out why the state was being blamed for a situation that was becoming a "political football."
The note -- part of a cache of emails released Wednesday by Snyder and reviewed by NBC News -- was sent on Sept. 25, 2015, as it became clear that thousands of people in the city had been exposed to lead in their drinking water.
“The issue of Flint water and its quality continues to be a challenging topic," chief of staff Dennis Muchmore wrote.
He said the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Community Health "feel that some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children's exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football claiming the departments are underestimating the impacts on the populations and particularly trying to shift responsibility to the state."
Muchmore, who recently announced he is moving into the private sector, went on to write that Snyder should agree to a call with Flint's congressman because otherwise "it will just fan the narrative that the state is ducking responsibility."
"I can't figure out why the state is responsible," Muchmore added, but noted that the state treasurer, Andy Dillon, had made the decision to switch Flint's water source to cut costs.
"So we're not able to avoid the subject," he wrote. "The real responsibility rests with the County, city and KWA," which was Flint's new water supplier.
In a briefing email to the governor the next day, Muchmore admits the water in Flint has had occasional “less than savory aspects,” but says that officials have found no clear evidence of lead issues.
“Now we have the anti everything group turning to the lead content which is a concern for everyone, but DEQ and [the health department] and EPA can't find evidence of a major change.” Residents are caught in a “swirl of misinformation,” he adds.
Part of Muchmore’s assessment was based on information coming out of the health department. That information from the state later turned out to be wrong.
Emails show officials there downplayed the findings of a local pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha at Hurley Medical Center, who was one of the first to raise concerns about the high lead levels in children coming through her door.
In that same Sept. 26th email chain, Geralyn Lasher, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, says the agency is reviewing information sent over by the pediatrician but doesn’t appear to put much stock in it.
“MDHHS epidemiologists continue to review the 'data' provided by a Hurley hospital physician that showed an increase in lead activity following the change in water supply,” wrote Lasher.
“While we continue to review this data, we have stated publicly that Hurley conducted their analysis in a much different way than we do at the department. Hurley used two partial years of data, MDHHS looked at five comprehensive years and saw no increase outside the normal seasonal increases.”
Despite continued skepticism about the scope of the lead issue, and the state’s responsibility for it, Muchmore said the state was lending a hand in Flint.
“We can't tolerate increased lead levels in any event, but it's really the city's water system that needs to deal with it,” he wrote on Sept. 26th. “We're throwing as much assistance as possible at the lead problem as regardless of what the levels, explanations or proposed solutions, the residents and particularly the poor need help to deal with it.”
Within days, Snyder publicly addressed the crisis for the first time -- though it would be several more months before he would declare a state of emergency and ask for federal aid.
The release of the emails comes amid probes by state and federal prosecutors, lawsuits and calls for Snyder's resignation.
Snyder announced he would release the emails during his State of the State address Tuesday night in which he apologized to the people of Flint and pledged to fix the mess.
"Government failed you," Snyder said.