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BREAKING: First Criminal Charges Handed Down After Flint Water Crisis

Volunteers load a car with bottled water in Flint CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CARLOS OSORIO
Volunteers load a car with bottled water in Flint CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CARLOS OSORIO

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced a total of 13 felony charges and five misdemeanor charges against two state and one city official over the water contamination crisis on Wednesday.

The charges were filed in the courtroom of District Judge Tracy Collier-Nix earlier in the day against Mike Glasgow, Flint’s laboratory and water quality supervisor; Michael Prysby, an official with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ); and Stephen Busch, the former MDEQ Lansing district coordinator at the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance.

Flint’s water was switched from the Detroit system to sourcing from the Flint River in April of 2014. After the failure to use corrosion control chemicals that should have prevented lead from leeching into the city’s drinking water, residents began reporting a number of health issues. But action didn’t come until October 2015, when Gov. Rick Snyder (R) switched the city’s water back to Detroit and declared a state of emergency.

The city is believed to have reported artificially low lead readings at the time of the contamination because the homes most at risk, the ones with lead service lines, weren’t tested as per the federal requirements. Glasgow faces two counts, including a felony count of tampering with evidence related to signing a document saying the tested houses did indeed have lead service lines, which investigators allege was false. That charge could result in four years in prison and/or a $5,000 penalty. He is also charged with a misdemeanor count of willful neglect of office, which carries a one-year sentence and/or $1,000.

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Prysby and Busch both face the same six counts: felony charges of misconduct in office (five years and/or $10,000) for allegedly misleading EPA officials, conspiracy to tamper with evidence (four years and/or $10,000), and tampering with evidence (four years and/or $5,000) plus two misdemeanors for violating the state’s Safe Water Drinking Act (one year and/or $5,000 for each day of the violation for each count). Prysby also faces a felony charge of misconduct in office for giving Flint’s water treatment plant a permit knowing that it wasn’t going to provide clean drinking water, which could result in five years and/or $10,000. Glasgow had previously testified that Prysby told him the city didn’t need to use phosphate to prevent lead corrosion for a year.

In a statement announcing the charges, Schuette said, “So many things went so terribly wrong in Flint. I made a decision that I must investigate what went wrong. It is my job as Attorney General to protect the citizens of Michigan.”

Reacting to the news of the charges, Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, said in a statement, “If people broke the law, they need to be held accountable — period,” adding, “However, the person who has continued to evade accountability in the midst of this crisis is Gov. Rick Snyder, who ushered in unaccountable emergency managers whose only focus was to cut costs at any cost… 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.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (MD), ranking Democratic member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that held hearings on the Flint crisis, also released a statement saying, “The criminal charges against MDEQ officials are one step towards justice for the families of Flint who were poisoned as a result of the actions of Governor Snyder’s administration.”

Schuette began an investigation into the crisis in January. A final report released by Schuette’s investigatory panel last month laid the blame on the state. The MDEQ bears primary responsibility, it found, for misinterpreting the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) lead and copper rule meant to keep drinking water from becoming contaminated and misapplied its requirements, which led to underreporting and exposing residents to high levels for months. It also said the agency waited too long before accepting the EPA’s intervention and failed to look into the situation on its own.

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The report found that the city’s Public Works personnel also failed to comply with the lead and copper rule, particularly by failing to use corrosion control treatments, although it also found they acted on inaccurate guidance from the MDEQ. The final report also blamed state-appointed emergency managers who were put in charge of running the city by the governor due to the financial troubles it faced. It was the emergency managers, and not local officials, who made the ultimate decision to switch Flint’s water source.

In the wake of the crisis coming into light, MDEQ Director Dan Wyant and Communications Director Brad Wurfel resigned, while Snyder fired the agency’s former chief of the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance and suspended a district supervisor in the same office.

Schuette’s investigation is still ongoing, and other parts of state and city government are still being scrutinized. This investigation is ongoing, it is broad, detailed and comprehensive,” he said in his statement. “What happened here in Flint is a tragedy, and we will continue to investigate all information that comes our way.” More charges are expected. The EPA and the Department of Justice are also conducting their own investigations. The EPA is also looking into updating the lead and copper rule, which hasn’t been updated since 2007 and so riddled with problems that it often fails to protect water from contamination. This post has been updated with information from Schuette’s office detailing the charges.