Veolia said it nonetheless warned city officials about the possibility of lead contamination, and that the city resisted discussions of changing its water supply. Veolia said it warned the then mayor, Dayne Walling, about how the corrosive water could cause lead to leach from the pipes and raised corrosion in a final public report to the city on 18 March 2015. But that report did not disclose the possibility for lead contamination, focusing instead on how corrosion could be causing water discoloration.
Months prior, in 2014, Flint had switched its water supply from the Detroit water system to the Flint River. But the Flint River water was not properly treated to reduce its corrosive properties on old pipes. So in addition to the bacteria and trihalomethanes, lead from the pipes began to flow into local taps.
In a 20-page response to questions from the Guardian and MLive, Veolia argued that city and state officials caused the crisis and are now “trying to create a corporate villain where one does not exist.”
“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,” Veolia said.
Nayyirah Shariff, director of the local activism group Flint Rising, recalls presentations Veolia executives made to city officials and the public at the time, in a news conference on 10 February and public meetings on 18 February and 19 March.
She remembers feeling the company downplayed the concerns of residents.
“They were like, ‘everything is fine,” Shariff said. To her, Veolia’s assessment at the time “raised more questions and didn’t add up to what we were beginning to see.”
Veolia’s interim water quality report, presented on 18 February, said: “Safe = Compliance with state and federal standards and required testing. Latest tests show water is in compliance with drinking water standards.”
An MLive article on that presentation was headlined: “Despite quality problems, ‘Your water is safe,’ says Flint consultant.”
The crisis in Flint, a majority-black city of 100,000, has served as a rallying cry for victims of environmental racism across the US. And Flint’s experience has been a precursor to lead discoveries in the water in Detroit; Newark, New Jersey; and Pittsburgh.
Flint residents have filed more than a dozen lawsuits against the city, the state and the federal government. The state attorney general is suing the two companies hired to help at the time – Veolia and Lockwood Andrews Newman (LAN), which worked with Flint before the water switch.
LAN officials have said Flint emergency managers routinely ignored doing what was best for the city’s water system and instead did what was cheapest.
The internal Veolia emails show Veolia executives were quick to recognize that Flint’s water system was fraught with problems that stemmed from lack of investment, outdated equipment and unqualified workers.
“There is no process control, plant operators are not well trained, data is not well managed or trended, just reported to the state,” Gnagy, the water process and quality manager for Veolia, wrote in a work summary dated 12 February 2015.
Multiple emails show individuals at Veolia clashing over whether to recommend that Flint change its water source. Veolia’s technology vice president Fahey in February told the engineering vice president, Kevin Hagerty: “If the best ‘technical decision is to go back to the city of Detroit as its supplier’ we should not be afraid to make that call. Just make sure that the politics of this should not get in the way of making the best recommendation.”