First Criminal Charges Filed in Flint Water Crisis

The charges filed today are "only the beginning," according to Michigan's attorney general. Months of denial from state officials gave way when a pediatrician produced results showing elevated lead levels in children's blood.

Criminal charges were filed today against 2 Michigan state environmental officials and a city worker who are accused of covering up information about lead contamination in Flint’s municipal water system.

The charges are a first—never before have public employees faced criminal counts over a public health crisis. While the man-made incident in Flint has received national headlines, it has also brought attention to existing lead contamination in other poor, mostly minority areas and schools—as well as efforts to keep that information away from parents and the public.

State officials charged were Mike Prysby, of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ); and Stephen Busch, who has already been suspended as the district coordinator for the DEQ Office of the Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance. Also charged was Mike Glasgow, Flint’s laboratory and water quality supervisor.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette filed the charges.

Prysby faces 6 criminal counts including misconduct in office, tampering with evidence and a violation of the Michigan Safe Drinking Act; Busch faces 5 charges that include misconduct in office and willful neglect of office, as well as evidence-tampering. Glasgow faces 2 counts for evidence-tampering and willful neglect of office.

While all 3 officials face felony counts, the more serious charges are against the state officials accused of misleading officials at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about the results of lead testing, and failing to properly treat the city’s water system with corrosion control chemicals. In addition, Prysby is accused of authorizing a permit for the Flint treatment plant, even though he knew it was not able to supply clean, safe drinking water.

This failure caused highly corrosive water from the Flint River, which had replaced Lake Huron as the city’s water source, to strip lead off pipes and carry it into homes.

Flint’s water crisis began when the financial struggling city, operating under an manager appointed by the governor, switched its water source in an effort to save money. Months of denials from state officials that anything was amiss were finally countered by research from a pediatrician, Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH, FAAP, who showed that lead levels in children’s blood had gone up in the months after the water supply switch. These results have since been published in The American Journal of Public Health.

News reports detail how emails between Glasgow and Prysby show that the Flint Water Treatment Plant began accepting river water over Glasgow’s objections, and how other emails sent to EPA suggested that Michigan and Flint were using best practices in treating the river water for corrosion, when that was not the case.

Schuette told Michigan reporters that the investigation continues. “These charges are only the beginning, and there will be more to come.”