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Michigan Just Pressed the First Charges Linked to the Flint Water Crisis

Three state and city officials have been charged with misconduct and other offenses in the lead-contamination crisis affecting 100,00 people.

by Kayla Ruble
Apr 20 2016, 11:45am

Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

It's been almost two years to the day since the city of Flint shut off its water supply flowing from Detroit and began drawing from the Flint River, in a cost-cutting measure that resulted instead in an enormous health disaster. As Flint struggles to recover amid a city-wide lead contamination as a result of the water switch, Michigan's Attorney General Bill Schuette announced criminal charges on Wednesday against three individuals, in connection to what has been dubbed the Flint water crisis.

These are the first charges filed in the crisis, which has captured national attention in the US for months.

The charges were reportedly filed against both state and city officials — Michigan Department of Environmental Equality staff members Steven Busch and Mike Prysby, as well as Flint Wastewater Treatment Plant administrator Mike Glasgow. District Judge Tracy Collier-Nix reportedly approved the filings in court this morning, according to a report from the Detroit Free Press. More charges against other individuals are expected to follow.

Glasgow, who was in charge of water quality at the plant, faces two charges of willful neglect of office and tampering with evidence. Glasgow, who was in charge of water quality at the plant, faces two charges of willful neglect of office and tampering with evidence. The tampering with evidence charge is linked to allegations that the city's water testing results were altered or manipulated.

Prysby has been hit with six charges, including tampering with evidence, one count of conspiracy to tamper with evidence, engaging in a treatment violation that violates Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act and engaging in monitoring violation that violates Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act, and two charges of misconduct in office. For Busch, the five charges are, according to the Free Press, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, engaging in a treatment violation that violates Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act, engaging in monitoring violation that violates Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act, and misconduct in office.

Prysby served as an engineer for the Michigan Department of Environmental Equality's Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, although earlier this week the agency revealed that he had taken a new role with the transportation and flood hazard unit. Busch is the Office of Drinking Water's Lansing and Jackson district supervisor and was put on paid administrative leave in February. He is also the subject of a separate investigation being carried out by the state of Michigan.

During a press conference held on Wednesday to formally announce the charges, Schuette said his investigation was part of the road back to restoring faith and confidence in the state's families that has been eroded during the water crisis.

"I've made it abundantly clear that our system of justice applies to everyone. It's not rigged, no one was above the law, not on my watch," the attorney general said.

Schuette opened the investigation in January, working with former Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Todd Flood and one-time Detroit FBI Chief Andrew Arena to determine whether any Michigan laws had been broken. The charges announced today will be tried by the 67th District Court.

At the afternoon press conference, Schuette said that Wednesday's charges were just the beginning and that there would be more to come.

"We will protect the victims... each and every person who breaks the law will be held accountable," he said, before alluding to the fact that emails sent by public officials had played a key role in the investigation process. "We'll go wherever the truth takes us and, in this case, wherever the emails take us."

While the charges were a welcomed development, Flint state senator and Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich said it wasn't enough.

"Although this brings us another step closer to the truth, it's still important to understand why and how people made such tragic decisions," Ananich said in a statement on Wednesday. "My community is still struggling, and justice cannot truly be served until the citizens of Flint receive a more urgent response to this crisis."

Speaking to journalists on Wednesday morning, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder called it a "very serious matter," while adding that his office has encouraged and cooperated with the investigations. Snyder did not comment directly on the specific individuals charged, but said it was important not to view other state employees negatively.

"We've got a lot of wonderful people working for the state of Michigan," he said, responding to a reporter's question about fear pervading state workers as a result of the investigation. "We have 47,000 people that work for the state and again let's not a possible situation of a handful effect all 47,000."

Emails made public through Freedom of Information Act requests show Prysby communicating early on about residents' complaints, while also failing to respond to an attempt by Glasgow to delay the initial switch. At the time, Glasgow said his staff was not ready.

Glasgow is a licensed utilities administrator at the wastewater treatment plant, where he worked before and during the water switch. In 2014, emails show Glasgow had communicated with Prysby expressing hesitation over his staff's ability to meet requirements once the water switch occurred. He claims this email was not answered.

The administrator was also involved in the initial testings conducted at the home of resident Lee Ann Walters, who voiced her concerns early on over the quality of Flint's drinking water. Glasgow's test found high levels of lead in her water at 104 parts per billion, well over the federal government's 15 ppb limit.

EPA official Jennifer Crooks responded to Glasgow's findings in an email to Busch, Prysby, and EPA regional regulations manager Miguel Del Toral. She acknowledged the high levels and the possibility that they could be a result of lead leaching from pipes because of corrosive water, but she also noted that previous rounds of sampling of 100 homes had uncovered just two results over the federal limit, with the highest at 37 ppb.

It was later uncovered that during subsequent rounds of testing of dozens of Flint residences, approved by Glasgow, the samples were taken largely from homes without lead-lined pipes and thus showed low lead levels.

The Flint water crisis began several years ago as the city of almost 100,000 attempted to cut costs and balance the budget after years of municipal decline. Once a booming industry town and the birthplace of General Motors, the city has seen more than 80,000 automaker jobs disappear over the last three decades and lost much of its tax base along with them.

Related: The Inside Story of How Michigan Poisoned the City of Flint

While under control of a state-appointed emergency manager, the city decided to stop buying water from Detroit and instead take its water from the Flint River. The April 2014 switch was a temporary solution until the end of 2016 when construction would be complete on a new pipeline drawing water from Lake Huron and meant to supply water to Flint and several surrounding counties.

Almost immediately after the switch, however, residents complained of brown, foul-smelling water and health problems like skin rashes. As concern grew, officials at the city, state, and national level denied there was anything wrong with the water, maintaining that it was safe to drink. Nearly a year and a half after the initial switch, a study from Flint's Hurley Medical Center found high blood-lead levels in the city's children. It was later revealed that the corrosive nature of the Flint River water had leached lead out of Flint's aging pipes, contaminating the water by the time it flowed into resident's homes.

Flint switched back to getting water from Detroit in October 2015, but lead-contaminated water continued to come out of people's taps, and by January, Governor Snyder declared a state of Emergency. The water crisis was eventually deemed a national emergency and the national guard and state police were dispatched to deliver bottled water and water filters to the city's 30,000 homes. Experts estimate that 8,000 children could have been exposed to lead, which causes developmental disabilities, as a result of the water crisis.

Finger-pointing started almost as soon as it was confirmed that the city's water was toxic, with everyone from residents to activists to politicians finding someone to blame. City officials have claimed that under emergency-manager rule their hands were tied and that they had no say in the process. When the city council attempted to switch back to Detroit water in the spring of 2015, then emergency manager Jerry Ambrose rejected their decision.

At the state level, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality or MDEQ has been hit with heavy criticism for failing to require the city of Flint to treat the water with anti-corrosives to prevent the metal pipes from releasing lead into the system. A state task force concluded that the MDEQ failed to ensure the safety of Flint's drinking water.

Dan Wyant, the MDEQ director throughout the crisis, and the agency's communications director Brad Wurfel both resigned in December, while several others have been suspended in the aftermath. At the agency's Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, several employees were cited for making mistakes in regards to federal drinking water guidelines and were subsequently moved to other departments.

The fact that Wednesday's charges included allegations of falsifying documents at the city and state level has discounted the state's attempt to shift blame onto the EPA, according to state activist group Progress Michigan.

"It was his administration that ushered in this crisis through policies he chose to implement and a governing culture that allowed these abuses to continue for so long," executive director Lonnie Scott said in a statement.

Snyder pushed blame onto the EPA during a congressional hearing in March.

"I have a really simple question: Why didn't (former Region 5 head) Susan Hedman call (former MDEQ Director) Dan Wyant? Why didn't the administrator call me?" Snyder questioned at the hearing, as EPA head Gina McCarthy defended her agency and put blame on the state. "This is technical compliance again. ... Where is the common sense?"

While anyone at fault should be charged, Scott criticized the fact that Governor Snyder has yet to be held accountable for the crisis. Organizations like Progress Michigan and critics throughout the state have focused blame on Snyder due to his oversight and control over the state's emergency managers and the MDEQ.

"The person who has continued to evade accountability in the midst of this crisis is Governor Rick Snyder, who ushered in unaccountable emergency managers whose only focus was to cut costs at any cost," Scott said.

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB