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What Released Emails Reveal About the First Criminal Charges in the Flint Water Crisis

The three men charged by Michigan's attorney general on Wednesday make notable appearances in thousands of emails regarding the state of Flint's water that the state released earlier this year.

by Kayla Ruble
Apr 21 2016, 12:00pm

Photo by Geoff Robins/Getty Images

The first criminal charges in connection to the Flint contaminated water scandal were filed on Wednesday, as an ongoing investigation ensnares both municipal and state officials for their roles in the lead contamination of the city's water supply.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is pressing several charges against Mike Glasgow, a former wastewater treatment plant administrator for Flint who now serves as the city's utilities administrator, and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) officials Mike Prysby and Stephen Busch. Glasgow is charged with willful neglect of duty as a public servant and is accused of changing lead water-monitoring results. Prysby and Busch also face charges of tampering with evidence as well as conspiring to tamper with evidence, misconduct in office, and violating water treatment and monitoring laws.

Prysby and Busch were arraigned on Wednesday and pleaded not guilty. Glasgow did not appear in court to be arraigned.

"These charges are only the beginning and there will be more to come. That I can guarantee you," Schuette pledged at a press conference, affirming that nobody would be ruled out or exempted from his investigation.

Related: 'Smothering the Outcry': The Inside Story of How the State of Michigan Poisoned Flint

The criminal charges come nearly two years after the financially struggling city, which was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager at the time, stopped buying water from Detroit and instead began drawing from the Flint River. The corrosive river water ended up leaching metal from the city's aging pipes, causing water with toxic levels of lead to flow out of taps. Initially seen as a cost-cutting measure, the decision has instead cost the city immensely. Experts estimate that as many as 8,000 children could have been exposed to lead, which can cause severe developmental issues.

Eager to get to the bottom of what and who caused the water crisis, the public's attention has often zeroed in on the city's numerous emergency managers, former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, and even EPA officials. The three men charged on Wednesday are relative unknowns, but Glasgow, Busch, and Prysby make notable appearances in thousands of emails regarding the condition of Flint's water that the MDEQ released earlier this year.

Glasgow, a 40-year-old licensed administrator the Flint Wastewater Treatment Plant, was the water quality supervisor at the time that the city and state was preparing to source water from the Flint River. He raised concerns just weeks before the city turned the valve on the new supply. In an email that he sent to the MDEQ on April 16, 2014, Glasgow asked for more information about how the new source would affect the testing of water quality for lead and copper. His message was addressed to Adam Rosenthal at the MDEQ's Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, with both Both Prysby and Busch copied.

"It looks as if we will be starting the plant up tomorrow and are being pushed to start distributing water as soon as possible," he wrote. "I would like to make sure we are monitoring, reporting, and meeting our requirements before I give the OK to start distributing water."

After receiving the new monitoring schedule from Rosenthal, Glasgow responded by saying that people above him were pushing to get the water flowing "ASAP." He explained that he needed time to train more staff and update monitoring plans.

"I was reluctant before, but after looking at the monitoring schedule and our current staffing, I do not anticipate giving the OK to begin sending water out anytime soon," he wrote on April 17. "If water is distributed from this plant in the next couple weeks, it will be against my direction."

He concluded the email by writing, "I will reiterate this to management above me, but they seem to have their own agenda."

By that point, the state of Michigan had already granted the required permits for Flint to make the water switch, and by April 25, 2014 officials were raising cups full of Flint River water at the treatment plant to toast the change. Prysby signed a letter on April 29 saying that the city was in full compliance for distribution. At the opening ceremony, Busch said the water had cleared all the necessary tests in order to be distributed.

"Individuals shouldn't notice any difference," he said.

Glasgow has since said that he never received a response to the email in which he outlined his concerns, a claim that appears to be corroborated by the lack of a follow-up email included in the public document release.

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

This is where at least one of Prysby's six charges comes into play. The 53-year-old MDEQ engineer was at the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance at the time of the switch, although he has since transitioned to a different department. One of his misconduct in office counts is reportedly connected to him approving the water switch, according to the Detroit Free Press, with authorities alleging that he was aware of the treatment plant's shortcomings.

It wasn't long after the switch before residents began complaining about brown water and skin problems like rashes or lesions. Based on the emails released by the state, both Prysby and Busch were notified by June 12, 2014 of a complaint by resident Lathan Jefferson who said people were getting "sores and lesions," which he attributed to the water. At that point, Busch asked that such concerns be directed to him or Prysby to answer.

On September 18, 2014, Prysby joked about the stream of complaints in a message responding to MDEQ official Richard Benzie.

"Thanks Richard...now off to physical therapy...perhaps mental therapy with all of these Flint calls....lol," Prysby wrote, according to an email uncovered by the Free Press.

As complaints from residents poured in, it became clear that there was something seriously wrong with the drinking water. By August, the city was forced to issue multiple notices to residents calling for them to boil their water after sampling found E. coli in the system. In October, General Motors, which was founded in Flint, stopped using water sourced from the Flint River for its engine plant in the city because chloride levels in the water risked causing corrosion.

At the end of 2014, another blow to the water supply came in the form of elevated levels of chemicals called trihalomethanes, which can lead to cancer after long periods of exposure.

Early the following year, residents flocked to city council meetings to raise concerns about Flint's water quality, and the complaints grew louder. In February 2015, Glasgow tested water at the home of Lee Ann Walters, who was among the first to express alarm over the city's drinking water, and found lead levels as high as 104 parts per billion. The federal limit is set at 15 ppb.

Related: Michigan Governor Rick Snyder Is Drinking Flint's Water Every Day For a Month

The results were sent to Jennifer Crooks, the EPA's program officer in Michigan, who forwarded them along to Busch and Prisby. She acknowledged the high levels and referred to a conversation that she and Busch had allegedly had over the possibility that the water's chemistry was leaching toxic compounds from pipes.

"So, Steve, this goes back to what you and I were talking about yesterday. That the different chemistry water is leaching out contaminants from the insides of the biofilms inside the pipes," she wrote, calling Busch out specifically. "I think Lead is a good indication that other contaminants are also present in the tap water, that obviously were not present in the compliance samples taken at the plant."

When questioned by EPA regional water safety expert Miguel Del Toral in February about whether Flint was using a proper corrosion control program to reduce the corrosiveness of the water and prevent lead leaching, Busch replied that the city did in fact have an "optimized corrosion control program."

After the city informed Walters that no corrosion control program in place, Del Toral pressed the MDEQ on the subject again in April 2015. The agency finally admitted that Busch had earlier provided inaccurate information, confirming that the water was not being treated with anti-corrosives.

It emerged that the MDEQ had let Flint operate under a mistaken interpretation of the Lead and Copper Rule Guidelines, allowing the city to provide monitoring results every six months instead of employing corrosion control. Glasgow later testified that Prysby told him testing would be sufficient, while the state auditor general later reported that Busch had incorrectly thought such a routine would be appropriate for determining whether a corrosion control program was required.

Glasgow's tampering with evidence charge is specifically linked to the monitoring tests and water sampling conducted by water treatment plant staff between January and June of 2015. The city was required to take 100 samples, half of which needed to come from residences where water flows through lead service lines before it exits the tap. The city did not reach the minimum requirement and only tested 69 samples. Furthermore, samples were taken largely from homes without lead-lined pipes and therefore showed low lead levels.

All three officials have been put on administrative leave. MDEQ spokesperson Melanie Brown said that both Busch and Prysby were suspended without pay as of Wednesday, and noted that the agency will continue to cooperate with the investigation. Glasgow's pay status is unknown.

During his press conference on Wednesday, Schuette made a point to stress that his investigation would be far-reaching.

"Each and every person who breaks the law will be held accountable," he said. "We'll go wherever the truth takes us and, in this case, wherever the emails take us."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB