Senior employees at an international water company knew that there was a risk of lead poisoning in Flint’s tap water in 2015 months before the city publicly exposed the problem, show internal email exchanges.
Emails show Veolia executives and a Flint contractor knew that lead from the city’s pipes could be leaching into the tap water. To safeguard Flint’s residents, they argued the city of Flint should be advised to change its water supply.
The Guardian and MLive.com reported that in an email sent in February 2015, Rob Nicholas, then the vice-president of development, revealed the engineering company had found risk of lead contamination.
“Do not pass this on,” he wrote in an email to senior employees of Veolia. “The City however needs to be aware of this problem with lead and operate the system to minimize this as much as possible and consider the impact in future plans. We had already identified that as something to be reviewed.”
Several days later, Bill Fahey, Technical and Performance Senior Vice President, messaged senior executives asking Veolia to urge Flint to change its water supply, saying that “the politics of this should not get in the way of making the best recommendation.”
In another email, he said: “PLEASE … this will come back and bite us.”
According to the Guardian and MLive, the emails were brought to light during a claim against Veolia North America by the Michigan attorney general’s office. Veolia and a Texas firm were accused for “botching” their roles in Flint’s drinking water crisis.
On 10 February 2015, Veolia won a $40,000 contract with Flint for an assessment of the water in Flint, and in its proposal, the company said it would analyse Flint’s water treatment process and distribution system. However, the French company said that the contract did not include the assessment of lead in Flint’s water supply, only of bacteria and harmful chlorine compounds (trihalomethanes).
The Guardian reports that Veolia said that it had warned city officials about the possibility of lead contamination, and these resisted discussions of changing Flint’s water supply.
It was not until fall 2015 that a lead disaster was confirmed by Michigan regulators, a year and a half after the switch to the Flint River.
Most of the state’s civil lawsuit against Veolia was dismissed by a judge last month, leaving only a claim of unjust enrichment.
In a response to questions from The Guardian and MLive, Veolia said: “It is critical when analyzing what happened in Flint to remember the context of the situation at the time it occurred; we now know in 2019 the myriad of ways that the government officials behaved badly, but as the Flint water crisis unfolded many of those facts were unknown, concealed and covered up by the government perpetrators.”