In Flint, they’ll need to go after the bigger fish


There was a rare, positive development in the ongoing saga of Flint’s corrosive water supply and the lead poisoning of residents in the Michigan city — and hopefully it’s the first step toward something much more meaningful.

The events that have transpired in Flint since early 2014, when cost-cutting state officials engineered a switch to that abrasive water from the Flint River and then ignored clear signs that lead from old pipes in the former factory town was polluting the city’s tap water, have been one of the worst cases on environmental negligence that I’ve seen in this nation, right up there with the BP oil spill.

From Day One, it seemed clear that the callous conduct of Michigan state officials — with emails suggesting that fairly high-ranking officials in the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder had knowledge of the danger from lead pollution in the low-income community fairly early on — was in fact a crime. Now, several months after the Flint water crisis became a national scandal, we have the first criminal charges in the case:

Genesee District Judge Tracy Collier-Nix authorized charges against Flint employee Michael Glasgow and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) employees Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby.

Glasgow, 40, was charged with tampering with evidence and willful neglect of duty, according to court documents.

Busch, 40, and Prysby, 53, were each charged with six counts, including misconduct in office, tampering with evidence and violation of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act, according to court documents. Busch, a district manager in the drinking water division, had already been suspended.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette told a news conference to announce the charges that it was “only the beginning and there will be more to come.”

There should no question, however, that the buck stops with Snyder, the governor. The Detroit Free Press agrees and said so in an editorial:

Snyder has accepted responsibility for Flint. But he continues to dodge blame, which he’d prefer to see land at the feet of those career bureaucrats.

What happened in Flint is complicated, a series of disastrous decisions made and OK’d by numerous government officials, set against the backdrop of decades of urban disinvestment and regional racism.

But here’s the thing: All of those decisions, made on Snyder’s watch, are on the governor’s account. Like any CEO, the governor is responsible for the culture of organization he helms, for the leadership he displays and — should — require from those below him. And so Wednesday’s charges offer no absolution for the governor.

All three men are mid-level managers, the folks who sign off on treatment plans or water sample collections, and for blame to stop at their feet would be a tragic misread of this public health catastrophe.

There’s two ways to interpret this major development in the case. One way would be to take Michigan’s attorney general, Schuette, at his word — that this just the very beginning of his investigation and that this first wave of indictments covering some mid-level players in this drama will lead to additional future charges, as either these men agree to testify against their superiors or other evidence will be uncovered.

The other way to look at this is to say that prosecutor Schuette — a prominent Republican in state politics, just like Snyder — is merely hanging a few small fish out to dry, while the big fish, including the governor, are allowed to slide off the hook. That is certainly my worry — after watching criminal prosecutions in the BP case here in Louisiana go down the same short, dead-end road. It can’t be the case here. We will never clean up our environment if we don’t hold our politicians accountable.

Read more details about the Flint water criminal charges here:

Find out more about Gov. Rick Snyder’s culpability from the Detroit Free Press:

Learn more about my fights against polluters in low-income neighborhoods in Mississippi and Louisiana in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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