Flint Water Crisis Investigation (2016)

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Michigan AG launched investigation to determine criminal and civil liability for violations of state law that caused or contributed to the Flint Water Crisis.

Topic: Water Pollution, Environmental Justice

Type of action: Lawsuit v. Other Public Entity, Lawsuit v. Private Actor, Criminal Case

States involved: Michigan

Summary: In April of 2014, the City of Flint changed its water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the more acidic water of the Flint River. Flint was in a state of financial emergency and made the switch in an effort to save money. The change caused lead to leach from the pipes supplying the water and contaminate the city’s drinking water. Shortly thereafter, many residents complained of discoloration and the poor taste and odor of the water. A General Motors plant in Flint even stopped using the water in October of 2014 because they claimed it was corroding car parts. Although the city issued 3 Boil Water Advisories in 2014 after finding coliform bacteria, some city officials denied that the water was undrinkable well into 2015. Various groups conducted tests showing unacceptable lead levels in residents’ tap water, evidence of elevated levels of lead in children’s’ blood, and even a potential link to an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease that claimed 12 lives. On January 16, 2016, President Obama declared the situation a national emergency and granted up to $5 million in relief funds. Residents were instructed to only use filtered or bottled water for drinking and bathing.

The day before the President declared the Flint Water crisis a national emergency, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette launched an investigation to look into potential violations of state laws by various public and private actors that played a role in the crisis. The investigation is ongoing and is being conducted by Chief Investigator Andy Arena, Deputy Chief Investigator Ellis Stafford, and Special Prosecutor Todd Flood. Schuette has already filed nearly 50 criminal charges against state and local officials, including Flint’s Emergency Manager who approved the switch.

On April 20, 2016 two state and one local official were charged with various felonies and misdemeanors. Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby, employees of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) were each charged with misconduct in office, tampering with evidence, conspiring to tamper with evidence, and treatment and monitoring violations of Michigan’s Safe Water Drinking Act. Michael Glasgow, the City of Flint Laboratory and Water Quality Supervisor was charged with tampering with evidence and willful neglect of duty. The complaint alleged that the officials had provided false evidence in reports to various officials, tampered with water monitoring data, improperly authorized a permit to the Flint Water Treatment Plant, and improperly treated the water at that plant. Glasgow pleaded nolo contendere to the charge of willful neglect of duty in a plea agreement whereby he agrees to further cooperate with the investigation and the other charge against him will be dropped. Busch and Prysby pleaded not guilty and those cases are ongoing.

In a second complaint filed in July, Schuette brought charges against three more MDEQ employees and three employees of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). The three MDEQ employees, Liane Shekter-Smith, Adam Rosenthal, and Patrick Cook, were each charged with misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty. Rosenthal was also charged with tampering with evidence and conspiring to tamper with evidence; Cook was further charged with conspiracy. The complaint alleges that the MDEQ employees failed to take appropriate measures and intentionally concealed or tampered with information to mislead officials. The three MDHHS employees, Nancy Peeler, Robert Scott, and Corinne Miller were each charged with misconduct in office, willful neglect of duty, and conspiracy for their collective involvement in suppressing a report showing increased lead levels in the blood of local children and later falsifying a report to the contrary. Miller pleaded nolo contendere to the charge of willful neglect of duty and agreed to testify against Peeler and Scott in the ongoing consolidated case.

In December of 2016, Schuette filed charges against Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, both former Emergency Managers, for false pretenses, conspiring to commit false pretenses, misconduct in office, and willful neglect of duty in office. Schuette also filed charges against two Flint Department of Public Works employees, Howard Croft and Daugherty Johnson, for false pretenses, and conspiring to commit false pretenses. All of the charges relate to their respective roles in allegedly using the Home Rule City Act emergency bond clause to borrow funds to pay for Flint’s portion of the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) Pipeline. Given the financial state of the city at the time, the funds would have otherwise been unavailable, and in fact a previous request had been rejected on those grounds. The request stated that the funds were needed to clean up a lime sludge retention pond, even though the funds were allegedly used for the KWA Pipeline. The ultimate agreement to borrow the funds also provided that the city would begin taking in water from the Flint River and the Flint Water Treatment Plant, which was not yet ready to provide safe drinking water. Ambrose also allegedly obstructed a health investigation with respect to the Legionnaire’s outbreak.

In addition to the criminal charges, Schuette filed a civil lawsuit against two corporations, Veolia and Lockwood, Andrews & Newman (LAN), for their involvement in the crisis. The action alleges that Veolia and LAN each committed professional negligence, and public nuisance, and that Veolia also committed fraud. The claims against Veolia and LAN allege that they knew or should have known that the chloride levels in the Flint River water would cause corrosion in the pipes and ignored warning signs that the water was unsafe. The fraud claim against Veolia further alleges that it submitted false or misleading statements to the public following its analysis of the water.

Schuette is also taking steps to prevent scams attempting to take advantage of those affected and those trying to donate money to help those in need.

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