Thursday, April 28, 2016

Flint Michigan: Three Indictments

On Wednesday, April 20th the Michigan Attorney General filed criminal charges against two state environmental officials, Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby and the Flint Michigan city’s utilities manager, Michael Glasgow. Stephen Busch, a district supervisor in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality; Michael Prysby, a former district engineer with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality; and Michael Glasgow, a supervisor at Flint’s water-treatment plant.

The three men face a total of 13 charges that include both felonies and misdemeanors. Mr. Busch and Mr. Prysby were charged with three felonies including misconduct in office (which is a felony) for “willfully and knowingly misleading” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the local Genesee County Health Department about the danger posed by the Flint, Michigan drinking water; and tampering with evidence relating to how the water was tested for lead. In addition Mr. Prsby was also charged with misconduct in office for authorizing the use of the Fling water treatment plant while knowing the plant was “deficient in its ability to provide clean and safe drinking water.” Each of these felonies is punishable by four-five years in prison and $10,000 fine. The men also face two misdemeanor counts each.

Mr. Glasgow was charged with one felony count of tampering with evidence and a misdemeanor count of willful neglect of duty. Bringing criminal charges against government bureaucrats for incompetence, neglect of duty or making bad decisions is highly unusual. The question is did criminal misconduct expose the almost 100,000 citizens of Flint, Michigan to potentially hazardous levels of lead for months. This is indeed a man-made disaster that could have been prevented at many points along the chain of decisions and events that caused it.

The problems all stem from trying to keep the cost of water as low as possible in Flint, Michigan a city plagued in recent decades by poverty, aging infrastructure and a declining population and budget shortfalls, is the underlying cause of the current tragedy. Though the current crisis began when the city of Flint decided to switch to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) as the City’s permanent water source in a cost saving measure as wholesale water rates from the old Detroit system kept growing in an attempt to support rising maintenance, repair and operating costs in that system. KWA would supply water to the members by building a new pipeline from Lake Huron. While waiting for KWA pipeline to be completed, the City of Flint planned to use the Flint River as a temporary alternative water source.

The Flint River was be subject to variations due to temperature changes, rain events and had higher organic carbon levels than the Lake Huron water previously supplied by Detroit. In an April 17, 2014 email Mr. Glasgow stated that he was concerned that the Flint water treatment plant was not ready begin distributing Flint River water to homes. He told the DEQ that he needed more time to train additional staff and update monitoring plans for the for the system. First, Flint struggled to meet the Safe Drinking Water Act levels at the water treatment plant. Nonetheless, the project moved forward.

Then residents noticed changes in the smell, color, and taste of the water coming out of their taps. Tests showed high levels of bacteria that forced the city to issue boil advisories. In response, the city upped its chlorine levels to kill the pathogens. This created too many disinfectant byproducts, which are carcinogens. Then the corrosive water began leaching lead, other metals and whatever else was in the biofilm on the old service line pipes that connected the water mains to peoples’ homes. A corrosion prevention plan was not implemented, but that simple plan could have averted disaster by using additives to diminish the corrosiveness of the water at negligible cost. They did not have a corrosion management plan and did not think it was necessary according to emails.

Though this is a man-made disaster that could have been prevented at many points along the chain of decisions and events that caused it, that chain goes back decades. If the lead lateral lines had been replaced, there would have been not lead to leach into the drinking water. If the city had stayed with the Detroit supply, the lead leaching would have remained at a much slower pace and hopefully stayed below hazardous levels. If the Flint Water Treatment Plant had implemented a corrosion prevention plan and were successful then the lead leaching would have remained at a much slower pace and hopefully stayed below hazardous levels.

All these bad decisions were made because low cost of water was more important than public health, and thought the Michigan Attorney General has promised additional prosecutions it is not clear that even these can be made to stick. Misconduct in office is an ambiguous offense and the charges of tampering with evidence is based on the Flint residents being instructed to run their drinking water for five minutes before taking samples. However, the protocol for lead sampling has been confused for decades. Best practice is to use both a first draw and a flush water sample for lead testing. Is this simply bread and circuses to help heal the community or are bureaucrats going to be held accountable for mistakes, misjudgments,incompetence and neglect?

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