Just the Beginning: Prosecutions in the Flint, Michigan Water Crisis
WRITTEN BY: Anjelica Cappellino, Esq. & Prof. John Meringolo, Esq.
The contamination of water in Flint, Michigan, although still shocking and deplorable, is hardly a recent story. Rather, it has been a disaster years in the making, starting as early as three years ago when The Detroit Water and Sewage Department sent a notice to Flint that its water service contract would be expiring within the year and the city would have to find an alternative source for water. After switching their water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River the following year, for which the city did not prepare by preventing corrosion and lead from leaching into the pipes, the residents of Flint soon began complaining about the water quality. Despite complaints about the “peculiar colors and odors,” fecal coliform bacteria present in some neighborhood’s water, and the extra chlorine treatments that increased levels of other contaminants, Flint officials seemed unconcerned. In July 2014, city officials stated that
[t]his is not an emergency. If a situation arises where the water is no longer safe to drink, you will be notified within 24 hours.
Throughout 2015, various warnings emerged. The total trihalomethane (TTHMS), “a disinfectant byproduct that can cause liver and kidney problems” had exceeded federal limits, and the University of Michigan began testing Flint’s water and detected amounts of lead from drinking fountains in their older buildings. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), began looking into the problem and discovered Flint’s water source did not contain adequate corrosion control to prevent lead in the pipes. However, both the DEQ and Michigan governor Rick Snyder, insisted the problem was not widespread. Meanwhile, more and more residents voiced their concerns, as people were becoming inexplicably ill from lead-poisoned water. It is estimated that there are at least 8,000 children under the age six who may have been exposed to lead in Flint’s water, a contaminant that causes irreversible damage to developing brains and nervous systems.
By the end of 2015, the cries for help from Flint residents could no longer be ignored, and the story garnered nationwide attention. Unable to rely on its water for consumption, many people from all over the country continue to donate bottled water to the city, while celebrities and activists have brought much-needed attention to the crisis. However, the most obvious question still lingers: Who is responsible for this catastrophe?
The Flint Water Advisory Task Force, an independent panel, had found that the state’s slow response to its water contamination stemmed from its “disregards for the concerns of poor and minority people,” which make up the majority of Flint’s population. State employees, analysts, emergency managers, and even the governor’s office, were found to have ignored the persistent outcries from Flint residents. The panel, in a 116-page report, found that “bureaucratic indifference” both caused and prolonged the crisis, with fault attributed not only to local Flint officials but also to the EPA. The report concluded that this was a clear case of “environmental injustice.”
Now, months after the report, and nearly two years after the switch of water sources, a criminal indictment has finally been filed against three individuals alleged to have contributed to Flint’s water contamination. Mike Glasgow, a city employee who ran the Flint water treatment plant, was charged with evidence tampering and willful neglect of duty for filing false reports on the city’s water quality, while Stephen Busch, DEQ’s district supervisor, and Michael Prysby, a former engineer at DEQ, “were charged with misconduct, evidence tampering, conspiracy and violations of the Safe Water Drinking Act for allegedly altering water test results.” City officials lauded the indictment as a victory in accountability.
However, high-ranking officials are notably absent from the indictment. Governor Rick Snyder, despite factual findings that he prolonged the crisis, was not even questioned during the investigation. The water contamination was proven to be caused by widespread negligence and disregard – shouldn’t the indictment more accurately reflect the breadth of individuals that were responsible in the first place? Were the indicted men acting independently? Or were they merely taking orders from higher ranking officials? If the relatively lower-level employees of the water treatment plant and the DEQ are held responsible, what does that say about the culpability ‘up top’? Flint’s water crisis was obviously caused by mismanagement, whether negligent or purposeful, at all levels. But when indictments are only doled out against a select few in the lower ranks, it is likely that the scope of the investigation is limited. Many are predicting that this is only the beginning of criminal prosecutions, assuming that the investigations of low-level employees will lead to the bigger root causes. The problem, however, is when the investigations come to a dead end, because higher-ranking officials have isolated themselves from any consequences.
The indictment of anyone in this environmental catastrophe is obviously a move in the right direction. However, it is far from over. Rather than taking solace in the fact that someone will be held criminally liable, it is important for us – the public, the media, the citizens of this country – to make sure everyone is held accountable for this crisis.
- Stephanie Gosk, et al., ’Failed Us All’: 3 Officials Hit with Charges in Flint Water Crisis, NBC News (Apr. 20, 2016).
- Julie Bosman, Flint Water Crisis Inquiry Finds State Ignored Signs, NY Times (Mar. 24, 2016).
- Abby Goodnough, Flint Weighs Scope of Harm to Children Caused by Lead in Water, NY Times (Jan. 29, 2016).
- Mitch Smith, A Water Dilemma in Michigan: Cloudy or Costly?, NY Times (Mar. 24, 2015).
- Monica Davey, Flint Officials Are No Longer Saying the Water Is Fine, NY Times (Oct. 7, 2015).
- Jennifer Dixon, How Flint’s Water Crisis Unfolded, Detroit Free Press.