Promising these are only the first in a long investigation, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced felony charges on Wednesday against three government employees involved in the Flint water crisis.
Stephen Busch, District 8 water supervisor of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and Michael Prysby, District 8 water engineer for the DEQ, were both charged with multiple felonies and misdemeanors related to alleged misconduct in office and tampering with evidence. Michael Glasgow, supervisor of the City of Flint water treatment plant, was charged with felony evidence tampering and misdemeanor neglect of duty. All the felony charges carry four- or five-year prison terms.
Schuette called the charges “the beginning of the road back (to) restoring trust in Flint families in their government.” He added that these were likely only the beginning of the legal consequences in the wake of the water crisis. Although he did not name other parties who might be charged, Schuette said “each and every person who breaks the law will be held accountable.”
The charges break down like this:
Busch and Prysby are accused of official misconduct for “willfully and knowingly misleading federal regulatory officials in the Environmental Protection Agency,” as well as local officials, regarding the safety of Flint’s drinking water, a felony carrying a potential five-year prison term and $10,000 fine.
Busch and Prysby are also charged with evidence tampering by allegedly mishandling water samples from the city and conspiracy to commit evidence tampering by concealing test results, a four-year/$10,000 felony.
Prysby faces an additional felony count of official misconduct for allegedly “authorizing a permit to the Flint Water Treatment Plant knowing (it) was deficient in its ability to provide clean and safe drinking water,” Schuette charged.
Both men were also charged with two misdemeanor violations of the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act, one for what the government says was a failure to add corrosion control to Flint’s water treatment, and the other for manipulating water samples.
Glasgow faces one felony count of evidence tampering, and a misdemeanor count of willful neglect of duty.
Busch and Prysby entered not guilty pleas in Genesee County District Court Wednesday and were released on personal recognizance bonds, MLive reported.
The charges generally reflect the findings of the independent Flint Water Advisory Task Force investigation, which was released last month and found the DEQ “failed in its fundamental responsibility to effectively enforce drinking water regulations.”
“Given the magnitude of the crisis in Flint, it is important to know if laws were broken,” Ken Sikkema, a former Republican state legislator who served on the task force, told Bridge after the charges were announced on Wednesday. “It’s also important to know that if they were, if they were broken intentionally or accidentally.”
Busch and Prysby, both currently suspended without pay from the DEQ, play parts in the narrative of the Flint crisis, as reflected in voluminous emails and other documents in Bridge Magazine’s timeline regarding the ill-fated decision to stop buying already treated water from Detroit and begin using the city’s long-dormant treatment plant on the Flint River. The decision was made while the city was under state-imposed emergency management, largely to save money, and had disastrous results: The failure to properly treat the highly corrosive river water led to lead leaching from the city water system’s pipes into residents’ drinking water. Potentially thousands of residents were exposed to lead-tainted water, including many young children, who are most vulnerable to harm from ingesting lead. City infrastructure was damaged and the municipal water supply still remains unsafe to drink.
Those emails and documents showed the DEQ’s apparent disregard of multiple red flags and warnings about the quality of Flint’s water. After General Motors opted out of the Flint system, claiming the water was corroding its manufacturing equipment; after residents complained of discoloration; after testing suggested even more dire consequences of the switch – the DEQ, with Busch, Prysby and others as key players, downplayed the complaints.
Reacting to Schuette’s announcement, Gov. Rick Snyder repeated his charge Wednesday that “a handful of bureaucrats” who didn’t use “common sense” bore most of the blame for the crisis. He said his office has been cooperative with the attorney general, and well as multiple other agencies’ ongoing investigations.
Responding to questions, he said he didn’t believe he or anyone else in his office could be held criminally responsible for Flint’s tainted water.
Chris Kolb of the Michigan Environmental Council and another former legislator who served on the task force with Sikkema, said he “wasn’t shocked that charges were filed,” and that the actions “reflect what we saw in our investigation.”