Flint utility company knew about lead in the water supply but failed to warn the public

December 2019

By Dawn Onley

Senior executives who worked for a Flint, Mich., utility company knew lead was seeping into the city’s drinking water months before the city admitted it, yet failed to inform the public.

In internal emails shared between executives at Veolia, at the time a city contractor, some of the companies’ top execs not only knew about the poisoned water, as early as February 2015, but a few believed strongly that the city needed to be notified, according to a joint investigation by The Guardian and local news website MLive.

But Veolia never cautioned the public. The Guardian and MLive report the company was looking into additional city contracts and suggested that the company may have chosen profits over the public’s wellbeing.

Ambitious lawsuit
The media outlets learned about the internal emails after the Michigan attorney general filed a lawsuit against Veolia, according to MLive. The lawsuit claims Veolia committed “professional negligence, negligence, public nuisance, unjust enrichment and fraud” by not helping the city avoid its lead crisis or strongly urging city leaders to implement safeguards. In November, the Genesee County Circuit Court threw out all of Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel’s charges against Veolia aside from one: unjust enrichment.

Rob Nicholas, the former vice president of development for Veolia, sent an email on Feb. 9, 2015, to senior management saying the city of Flint needs to be made aware of the risk of lead contamination, which the company had identified.

“Do not pass this on,” Nicholas wrote in the email, according to The Guardian and MLive. “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.”

Bill Fahey, another Veolia vice president, also emailed senior execs this time strongly urging the company to get the city involved. “The politics of this should not get in the way of making the best recommendation,” Fahey wrote, according to the joint investigation. In a follow-up email, he reportedly added: “PLEASE… this will come back and bite us.”

At the time, Veolia was under a city contract to only assess levels of bacteria and chlorine in the water supply. Still, company officials reportedly did warn city employees, including former Mayor Dayne Walling – about the risks of lead contamination based on their investigation yet the city refused suggestions to change its water supply.

Walling told MLive and The Guardian that Veolia discussed water corrosivity but did not specifically caution against lead. In a report Veolia sent to the city in March 2015, lead was not mentioned, the joint investigation found.

As early as April 2014, Flint residents reported discoloration and a foul taste in their drinking water, which was around the same time the city switched to the Flint River as its water supply. City leaders discovered high levels of lead in one resident’s water in Feb. 2015, but didn’t divulge the full extent of the water crisis until seven months later.