In Michigan, justice starts with a trickle and ends with a flood.
By Jared Keller
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announces that he filed 13 felony charges and five misdemeanor charges against two state officials and one city official as a result of their actions in the City of Flint’s lead water contamination crises. (Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Three Michigan government officials — two state regulators and a public works employee — were charged Wednesday as part of an ongoing probe over the city of Flint’s ongoing water crisis, the Associated Press reports. The announcement by the office of Attorney General Bill Schuette followed a months-long probe into the causes and responsibility of the negligence that resulted in a lead-tainted water supply for the town of 100,000.
The charges are significant, including misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, and, in the case of Flint utilities administrator Michael Glasglow, “willful neglect of duty as a public servant,” according to the AP. And, according to state officials, these three employees are far from the only government officials who abdicated their responsibilities as civil servants. “There will be more to come, I guarantee you,” Schuette said on Wednesday, speaking of the charges. “This is just the first wave … [we ’ll go] wherever the emails take us.”
This, as in most public scandals, raises the question of scale: Does this go all the way to the top? While the three officials in question will certainly be punished for destroying evidence and tampering with official documents, proving negligence — which, yes, is punishable under Michigan’s penal code — is a bit trickier. But based on the damning bureaucratic malfeasance that created the conditions of Flint’s water crisis, it seems likely that the criminal responsibility for poisoning an entire town won’t just lie with state and local regulators. And this leads to another familiar question: Who knew what, and when?
The public documents uncovered by journalists and whistleblowers in the last few months paint a damning picture. The independent panel appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in October found a culture of defensiveness and callousness (especially to the plight of minorities and the poor) among state officials at every level of government that precipitated the carelessness that would poison thousands of taxpayers. They were “analysts in charge of supervising water quality, state-appointed emergency managers who prized frugality over public safety, and staff members in the governor’s office who adopted a whack a mole attitude to beat away persistent reports of problems,” according to the New York Times.
Who knew what, and when?
Snyder himself may not escape the scope of the attorney general’s inquiry. According to a trove of 270 pages of emails released in January, officials deliberately played down the threat of lead in Flint’s water supply as being “not an imminent threat to public health.” This, despite months of complaints from residents and even the local General Electric plant (which stopped using the water because it corrodes car parts) according to the New York Times.
“It’s clear the nature of the threat was communicated poorly,” the memo read. “It’s also clear that folks in Flint are concerned about other aspects of their water — taste, smell and color being among the top complaints.” While Snyder maintained that he didn’t know about Flint’s lead contamination and his administration underplayed the health threat to his constituents, officials had clean water shipped into the statehouse almost a year before the crisis came to a head. No vow to drink Flint water for 30 days will absolve his administration of that.
But the blame goes far beyond state and local regulators, although punishment may be elusive when it comes to the Environmental Protection Agency. Instead of sounding the alarm over local malfeasance, the EPA went into face-saving mode and dithered when employee Miguel Del Toral blew the whistle on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s troubling evaluations of the state’s water quality back in February 2015. From the New Republic:
According to a memo from June that was later leaked, Del Toral was concerned that Flint did not use the same chemical treatments for lead and copper after it made the switch in 2014, and that corroded plumbing was likely leaching lead: “In the absence of any corrosion control treatment, lead levels in drinking water can be expected to increase.” Compounding the problem, Michigan instructed residents to “pre-flush” their taps before sampling, leading to depressed reporting of lead levels.
For the next six months, the agency was in a dispute with Michigan officials over how it interpreted water treatment under the 25-year-old EPA regulation on lead and copper.
It wasn’t until November 2015 that the EPA finally took action on Del Toral’s concerns over local regulators’ flawed testing. By January, EPA regional director Susan Hedman resigned—on the same day the EPA finally issued an emergency order to take action on Flint’s poisoned drinking water—blaming state and local regulators for her own agency’s craven refusal to heed the warnings of one of their own analysts. It seems doubtful Hedman will escape the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s probe into the crisis, although experts suggest that prosecution under the Safe Drinking Water Act may be unlikely.
In Michigan, a felony conviction for “willful neglect of duty as a public servant” comes with a year in prison or a $1 million fine. It doesn’t seem like Snyder will be able to drink his way out of sleeping on the job.