Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Even if they don’t do anything to replace the city’s lead pipes.
Justice is coming to Flint, slowly and incompletely. Wednesday morning, criminal charges filed by Michigan's attorney general against three officials involved in the city’s lead-in-water crisis were authorized by a local judge. They are the first such charges to be levied against government employees since Flint’s public health disaster began two years ago.
Two officials at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Mike Prysby and Stephen Busch, now face multiple charges including misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, and engaging in treatment and monitoring violations of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act. One water quality supervisor with the city of Flint, Mike Glasgow, faces charges of tampering with evidence and willful neglect of office.
According to the Detroit Free Press, “Those charged did not appear in the Flint courtroom this morning, but it is expected that they'll face arraignment on the charges at a future time that has yet to be announced.” Meanwhile, more charges are expected to be filed as Michigan attorney general Mike Schuette continues an investigation that began in January.
Convicting government officials whose decisions allowed dangerous levels of lead to flow through the city’s drinking water system—putting nearly 9,000 children under the age of 6 at risk of lead’s irreversible, brain-damaging effects—is a significant step towards achieving a measure of justice for the people of Flint. It’s also extremely rare, and could have repercussions in terms of how drinking water providers and regulators around the U.S. do their jobs. Millions of Americans drink water from systems that operate in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and while violators can be criminally charged, they almost never are, according to Manuel Teodoro, an associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University who studies environmental regulation. “I think this could change people’s behavior, if they truly believed that criminal charges could result from environmental violations like this,” he says.
However, advocates point out that these charges do nothing to directly help the citizens of Flint, who remain effectively trapped in a city where drinking water remains unsafe and unreliable, and where plans to replace lead service lines keep faltering.
The charges are “a good start,” says Melissa Mays, a longtime Flint resident and leader of the citizens’ advocacy group Water You Fighting For. “I’m glad this is happening, but the focus still needs to remain on the fact that we currently do not have safe water and the governor is not doing anything to help us at this point.”
So far, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has allocated $2 million to the city of Flint to support lead pipe replacement. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has projected the total cost of replacing thousands of lead lines at $55 million, and has said that what the state has furnished so far is not enough. In January, the ACLU of Michigan and the National Resources Defense Counsel filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to compel the “prompt replacement of all lead water pipes at no cost to Flint residents,” according to a statement. Dozens of lawsuits seeking damages from the city and state have also been filed by Flint residents. In those cases, because of sovereign immunity, plaintiffs will have to demonstrate gross negligence on the part of government official—a very high standard of proof.
“While today’s announcement is important, it does nothing to replace the lead lines and does nothing to compensate the people of Flint for the injuries that they’ve suffered,” says Michael Steinberg, the legal director of the ACLU of Michigan. “Hopefully the courts will intervene in both our case and in the damages lawsuits, in order to help make people whole.”