clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

3 officials are finally facing criminal charges for covering up Flint’s water crisis

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Three people are finally facing criminal charges in the Flint water crisis: two state officials and one city employee who, according to Michigan's attorney general, covered up the high levels of lead in the city's water and stopped investigations into other water-related health risks.

Arguments about who's to blame for the Flint crisis have focused on the state-appointed emergency managers who oversaw the switch to river water; the state Department of Environmental Quality; and Gov. Rick Snyder himself, who pushed for stronger emergency manager laws that some say enabled the crisis.

But the charges underline that there's a big difference between moral culpability, however you assign it, and criminal culpability. The people charged so far are mostly low-level employees who were closely involved as the water crisis unfolded.

Three people are accused of crimes in covering up the Flint crisis

Michael Glasgow, a Flint utilities administrator, will be charged with tampering with evidence and willful neglect of office. Immediately before Flint switched to river water for its water source — the fateful decision that set the lead crisis in motion — Glasgow warned that the city was moving too fast: "If water is distributed from this plant in the next couple weeks, it will be against my direction," he said eight days before the switch, according to MLive.

But Glasgow also oversaw a slipshod water testing regimen that allowed the crisis to continue undetected. The federal Environmental Protection Agency requires that testing for lead be done on homes with lead pipes, which pose the highest risk. Flint didn't do that. Instead, the city sampled homes mostly without lead pipes and told the EPA they were following the regulation.

Glasgow also allegedly removed two homes with high lead levels from the final test results, he says at the behest of state employees. Michigan Public Radio explained the effect this had:

Two state employees — Michael Prysby, an engineer with the state Department of Environmental Quality, and Stephen Busch, who supervised eight district water offices — will face charges for violating Michigan's Safe Drinking Water Act, tampering with evidence, conspiracy, and misconduct in office.

Prysby and Busch are the two accused of instructing Glasgow to drop homes with high lead levels from Flint's report to the EPA. They're also accused of impeding an investigation into another problem with Flint water unrelated to lead: an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease.

Busch, who was suspended in January, had assured the EPA in February 2015 that Flint was using corrosion control in its water, which would have prevented the river water from causing lead to leach into the water. He later said the city wasn't using corrosion control but was still complying with the EPA's requirements. (Michigan Public Radio has a good overview of this controversy.)

Charging low-level state employees seems likely to end the criticism Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is facing. Just 25 percent of Michigan residents think he's doing a "good" or "excellent" job. And for the first time in 15 years, they say infrastructure is a more pressing problem for Michigan than jobs or the economy.

Snyder recently blamed the crisis on "career civil servants" who "technically read rules and didn’t use common sense" — arguing that bureaucracy is the real problem in Flint. The criminal charges support his point. But Michigan residents cast blame far more widely: A majority, according to a Michigan State survey, blame Snyder, the emergency managers, state government, or "everyone."