Criminal charges brought in the Flint water scandal by Michigan’s attorney general name three state officials as defendants. Bill Schuette has charged two officials of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and Flint’s utilities manager with felonies and misdemeanors, among them misconduct in office and tampering with evidence. Schuette indicated that the indictments of
MDEQ’s Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby and Flint water quality supervisor Michael Glasgow do not mark the end of his investigation and that he was open to plea deals with the defendants in exchange for further information.
The water crisis in Flint began in April 2014, when the city switched it water source from the clean water provided by the City of Detroit treatment plant to water drawn from the badly polluted Flint River. The change was made as a money-saving measure for the strapped city. Although Glasgow informed MDEQ official Adam Rosenthal that the virtually mothballed Flint water treatment facility would not be ready by the scheduled date, his email went ignored. “I was reluctant before,” Glasgow wrote in his April 17 email, “but after looking at the monitoring schedule and our current staffing, I do not anticipate giving the OK to begin sending out water anytime soon.” The email continues, “I water is distributed from this plant in the next couple of weeks, it will be against my direction.”
Glasgow was told by Busch and Prysby to falsify 2015 reports that revealed elevated lead levels in the water, instructing him to remove the highest numbers. Glasgow complied. The two MDEQ officials are charged with lying to federal Environmental Protection Agency employees, in particular EPA Region 5 official Miguel Del Toral, about the quality of Flint’s water. Busch and Prysby are also charged with authorizing a permit to the Flint water facility when they knew the plant “was deficient in its ability to provide clean and safe drinking water.”
For his part, Del Toral, who was dogged in his investigation into the quality of Flint’s water and made insistent reports to his superiors, was rebuffed and then vilified by the agency. The motive of the EPA is one of the numerous puzzles in this tragic story. Why did the EPA ignore and then attack Del Toral for reporting that there were high levels of lead in Flint’s water? The EPA’s Region 5 director, Susan Hedman, resigned her post February 1 of this year, but of course it remains to be seen whether Schuette’s investigation will reach the federal level and the EPA.
The primary mystery in this case, though, is just who was ultimately behind the decision to deny Glasgow permission to add anti-corrosive agents to Flint’s water, an otherwise standard procedure in water treatment. Without corrosives control, the acidic water of the Flint River caused lead from home service pipes to leach into residents’ water. Prysby was the official in communication with Glasgow, but he was a low-level official. If it was on Prysby’s initiative that the decisions were made to actively deny corrosives control to Flint’s water treatment plant and then to lie to the EPA about the city’s water quality, then why did the Snyder administration join in the game of covering up MDEQ’s wrongdoing? To the people of Flint, at any rate, the parties responsible for their harm occupy much higher offices than Prysby and Glasgow. Which raises a third question. Just how far does Schuette plan to take his investigation, and how high up might his indictments reach? “No one is off the table,” he has said.
Outside the press conference where Schuette made his announcement of the indictments, Flint residents picketed, many holding signs calling for Snyder’s prosecution. “I’m disappointed,” said Gladyes Williamson, one of those picketing said to a reporter for the World Socialist Web Site. “Schuette shook my hand and looked me in the eye and said this is just a start. I told him these are crumbs! They are going after the people who covered it up, but what about the people who carried it out?” Williamson continued, “What about Snyder, [Emergency Manager] Darnell Earley, [frormer Flint mayor] Dayne Walling?”
Resident Nakiya Wakes said, “I’m really angry. I feel it was just the smaller people that got charged and took the rap. What about Snyder? He should be charged along with all the other elected officials. On February 11, 2016, I would have had two babies if I hadn’t miscarried drinking the contaminated water. I recently had my water tested by Water Defense [a water-quality activist group]. The water in my home showed 1,100/ppb. The MDEQ has been coming every two weeks to test my water, and their tests showed 3/ppb.”
For his part, Schuette casts the criminal charges as a means of building confidence in a state that has, at the very least, failed its citizens. “This is a road back to restoring faith and confidence in all Michigan families in their government,” Schuette said at the press conference. It is to be noted that in Michigan the post of attorney general is an elected position, and that Schuette, a former U.S. Representative, is a career politician. There is a good deal of talk in Michigan political circles that he intends to run for governor. A few trophies on his wall from the notorious Flint affair would certainly make for good campaign ads. Whether he might choose to go after big game like Snyder and Earley, however, remains to be seen.
There is much that is curious about the Flint scandal, and there are dots to be connected. Both Flint and Detroit have been under control of the anti-democratic and locally hated “emergency manager” scheme. Which is to say, those two large and impoverished cities have been under control of Lansing. The Detroit bankruptcy, a shell game played upon that city’s residents, robbed city workers of their pensions and put in motion efforts to privatize public services, primarily the water system and the schools. Michigan’s wealthy aristocracy, people such as Little Caesars owner Mike Illitch and real estate magnate Dan Gilbert, have been closely involved with decisions affecting Detroit. Flint, which charges the highest water rates in the country, made a killing off its residents by exacting its exorbitant prices for the “free water” of the polluted Flint River, rather than continue to pay for water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. While Flint has temporarily returned to DWSD in the wake of the lead scandal, it has plans to join the new, Lake Huron-supplied Karegnondi Water Authority.
In sum, it may be that Schuette’s investigation and indictments will reach as high as the governor’s office. Certainly Snyder bears actual responsibility for much of the harm done to the people of Flint, and not just the ceremonial “ultimate” responsibility he paid lip service to in his January State of the State Address. But billions of dollars are involved in Michigan’s water systems and in its “managed” municipalities. A question better than “What about Snyder” may turn out to be whether Schuette will actually attempt to follow the money. As a career politician and Republican Party member with close ties to the corporate community in Michigan, it is likely that Schuette will not be at the reins if justice is ever served in the Great Lake State.