The Flint water flowing from her showerhead caused her hair to fall out, read a Jan. 29, 2015, complaint from one Flint resident to Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office.
A year later, the Attorney General opened his investigation into the city’s municipal water supply.
“My skin is disgusting and my dog was sick until we switched her to bottled water . . . We need help in Flint PLEASE,” the Tiffin Street resident wrote.
Today, Schuette is a central figure in the prosecution of nine government employees allegedly connected to the contamination of Flint’s municipal water.
He’s also spearheading civil action against a pair of engineering firms potentially responsible for mistreating Flint River water.
But before taking action this past January, Schuette received 14 complaints from Flint residents about the city’s poor water quality, according to documents MIRS received through the Freedom of Information Act from April 1, 2014—the same month Flint switched its supply to Flint River water—to Dec. 31, 2015.
Schuette started his investigation into the Flint water situation Jan. 15, 2016.
“I don’t know why he didn’t get in front of this quicker than he did,” said Laurie Barr, one of the 14 to write Schuette a letter. Her correspondence came in early November. “When the shit hit the fan, he was all about justice. I don’t know the details, but it just seems that until it became a bigger deal for everybody else, it became a big deal for him.”
Schuette’s office notes that the Consumer Protection Team received more than 9,000 written complaints in 2015 to which each received a reply.
“When enough information became available for the attorney general to open a criminal investigation, he did so,” said Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely.
During a June reporter roundtable, Schuette was asked if he had any contact with anyone from his environmental division about what was going on in Flint through most of 2015. He said, “Not to my recollection.”
When a reporter asked if it was “negligence on somebody’s part that the top law enforcement” officer wasn’t given a head’s up, Schuette was quick with a response.
“Absolutely not . . . If anyone with direct authority when they saw that the water was brown, when it smelled and the people could taste it, that was red alert. That was DEFCON 1,” Schuette said June 22.
But one of four consumer complaints received by the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection division on Jan. 29, 2015, flagged that exact circumstance, starting with, “Water smells and is discolored.”
Schuette said his environmental division had contact with the Governor’s office and the Department of Environmental Quality in 2015, but couldn’t speak to the exact conversations.
Supporters note that, at the time, Schuette’s team was reacting to the same information the DEQ and state department and local officials were giving Gov. Rick Snyder’s team. The governor and attorney general’s offices were told everything was fine. No reason to get involved. When it became clear those officials were not telling the whole story, Schuette launched an investigation and several of those state bureaucrats are now facing criminal charges.
“As more information came to me, it was time for me to do an investigation as Attorney General. I don’t run the departments,” Schuette said in June. “More information came in the press and the papers.”
Desiree Duell, an activist with Flint Rising, said the response by Snyder, Schuette and the whole Republican operation in Lansing has been “anemic and slow.” Residents had been speaking up about the quality of the city’s water since the beginning of 2015 and it was only until late 2015 and early 2016 when the national news became involved that a response came.
“It comes down to Flint being economically depressed,” Duell said. “The complaints coming from the residents were not of value to them. This is why we were gaslighted for so long and told the water was safe.”
Schuette had the complaints in his own Consumer Protection division for months before launching an investigation, action taken after Snyder acknowledged the problem Oct. 1.
As recently as late December, Schuette was praising then-DEQ Director Dan WYANT as a “terrific guy . . . that’s going to be involved with state government for a long time in high positions of responsibility” (See “Wyant Resigns As Task Force Slams MDEQ Over Flint Water Contamination,” 12/29/15). Snyder cut Wyant loose about a week later on Dec. 29.
In total, the Attorney General reported receiving 14 complaints on the quality of the city of Flint’s water supply from April 2014, when Flint switched its municipal water supply from the Detroit municipal supply to the Flint River. Six of those complaints came between Jan. 29, 2015 and April 9, 2015.
The names and full addresses of the individuals making the complaint were blacked out to protect their privacy, according to the AG’s FOIA office.
A Flint resident living on East Piper Avenue told Schuette’s office on Jan. 29 about the tooth decay he or she was experiencing because of the water supply. The resident’s pets wouldn’t drink it.
“I see why (General Motors) said they can’t use Flint water on there (sic) metal,” the person wrote. “My filling and teeth can’t use it either. I am asking you for myself and the many other Flint people to do something to correct this problem or refund my rates for this water that is undrinkable.”
Another Flint resident, a cancer survivor, living on Beta Lane wrote Schuette on the same day, telling him that he or she had been in remission for eight years and has “a severely compromised immune system.” After receiving a Jan. 3, 2015 notice of the contaminated water supply, this person wasn’t going to test his or her luck on the public water supply.
When this person called the city of Flint, the response allegedly given by Flint officials was they “don’t have to provide water for individual needs,” the letter reads.
Laurie Barr, of Saginaw, told MIRS she volunteered for Schuette’s first congressional campaign in 1984. Barr’s Nov. 5 letter alerted the Attorney General that Flint residents didn’t have the money to seek medical attention if they were being slowly poisoned by the water.
Residents couldn’t wash in hot water or else they’d risk the steam getting into their pores, she wrote.
“Once it gets to a point where they seek medical attention it will be the taxpayers responsibility because they will be going to the ER,” Barr wrote. “Everyone is talking and no one is doing. If you aren’t part of the solution then you are part of the problem. Flint is not a Third World country, it is Michigan!”
Barr praised Schuette’s response since Jan. 15, 2016 as being awesome.
“I see some bright light. I see some trust earned back. They’ve picked up the ball and running with it. They just shouldn’t have dropped it to begin with,” Barr said.
Rep. Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint) also was forgiving of Schuette not following through quicker on Neeley’s Sept. 29 written request to the AG for an investigation.
Neeley said he appreciates the Attorney General seriously looking into the heart of the conversion away from Detroit water to the temporary Flint River water while the 67-mile Karegnondi Water Authority pipe from Lake Huron to Flint was being built.
Was the mistreated Flint River water maleficence by bureaucrats? Was it driven by investors looking to profit from the project? Both? Neither?
“Yes, he was late to the game, but he’s on the battleground now,” said Neeley of Schuette. “Everyone was failed by the information that was being put out, including the public. When somebody makes a complaint, we have a duty to take the extra step to see what is happening. I think we all learned from that.”
This story presented as part of a cooperative arrangement between MIRS, a Lansing-based news and information service and Healthcare Michigan.