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Flint Crisis Sparks More Felony Charges

Thursday, December 22, 2016

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Four more officials are facing charges over the state and city response to the drinking-water crisis in Flint, MI, after the state’s attorney general announced a new round of legal actions Tuesday (Dec. 20).

Two former state emergency managers—Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose—are facing multiple 20-year felonies based on charges they arranged the misuse of funds to help bankroll the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline, and discouraged Flint from returning to the use of Detroit’s water supply, even in the face of evidence that the Flint River and Flint treatment plant posed health risks.

Flint water building
© iStock.com / ehrlif

As the date for the switchover from Detroit’s water to Flint River water neared, the attorney general says, it was clear that the treatment plant was not ready to safely handle the city’s water supply.

In addition, two officials from Flint’s Department of Public Works—Howard Croft and Daugherty Johnson—face two 20-year felony charges each, based on allegations they worked with Earley and Ambrose in the conspiracy to misuse funds, and encouraged Flint officials to use the Flint River as the city’s water source despite known issues with the treatment plant and service lines.

13 Charged, Two Civil Suits

The first formal charges related to the Flint crisis came in April, when Attorney General Bill Schuette announced charges against Flint water quality supervisor Michael Glasgow and state Department of Environmental Quality officials Michael Prysby and Stephen Busch.

In June, Schuette’s office filed civil suits against two water infrastructure firms, Veoilia and Lockwood, Andrews and Newnam, in relation to the crisis. In July, six more current and former state officials were charged. The new charges bring the total number of state and local officials charged to 13.

Crisis Origins

Flint’s drinking water crisis began in April 2014, when the city chose to switch its water source from Detroit’s water supply to the Flint River as an interim solution while a pipeline to carry water from Lake Huron to the communities of the newly formed Karegnondi Water Authority was being built. Flint is part of a three-county area that voted in 2010 to leave Detroit’s water supply and form the KWA.

Flint River
© iStock.com / DenisTangneyJr

Flint’s drinking water crisis began in April 2014, when the city chose to temporarily switch its water source from Detroit’s water supply to the Flint River.

Water from the Flint River was not treated with anticorrosive agents, and began to corrode the city’s aging pipes. Drinking water in many homes was contaminated with lead, leading to a public health crisis.

Deceptive Fund Request, Ignored Warnings

According to the attorney general’s office, Earley and Ambrose tried in early 2014 to secure loans to help fund the KWA pipeline, which would not have moved forward without funding from the city. They were unable to do so because the city was in receivership.

With help from Croft and Johnson, the officials secured funds through an emergency bond clause. The funds were nominally to be used for the cleanup of a lime sludge lagoon that was a byproduct from water treatment. But, the attorney general’s office says, funds were diverted to the KWA pipeline project.

At the same time, the defendants inserted language into documentation on upgrades to Flint’s water treatment plant that bound the city to use the Flint River water, treated at the Flint treatment plant, during the lead-up to the construction of the KWA pipeline. The Flint River became part of the deal that sent emergency funds to Flint despite the city’s debts.

As the date for the switchover from Detroit’s water to Flint River water neared, the attorney general says, it was clear that the treatment plant was not ready to safely handle the city’s water supply. “The defendants allegedly ignored warnings and test results and shut off the pipes pulling clean water from Detroit, and turned on the Flint River valves,” Schuette’s office reports.

The Charges

Earley and Ambrose each face the following charges:

  • One felony count of False Pretenses, carrying a sentence of up to 20 years and/or fines of up to $35,000, for allegedly diverting funds meant for emergency cleanup to the KWA project;
  • One felony count of Conspiracy to Commit False Pretenses, carrying a sentence of up to 20 years and/or fines of up to $35,000;
  • One felony count of Misconduct in Office, carrying a sentence of up to 5 years and/or a fine of up to $10,000, for allowing the use of water from the Flint River and authorizing “false and misleading public statements that the water was safe to drink”; and
  • One misdemeanor count of Willful Neglect of Duty in Office.

Croft and Johnson each face one count of False Pretenses and one count of Conspiracy to Commit False Pretenses, each count carrying up to 20 years in prison and/or fines of up to $35,000.

EPA Inaction Questioned

In addition to the charges brought against employees of the city of Flint and the state of Michigan, the federal Environmental Protection Agency released an internal investigation in October, concluding that EPA Region 5 officials had reason to issue an emergency order regarding Flint’s contaminated drinking water as early as June 2015, but failed to do so for seven more months.

At the time, EPA officials reportedly believed they were prevented from issuing an emergency order under the Safe Drinking Water Act, because the state of Michigan has jurisdiction over such orders. However, the EPA’s Inspector General said that the EPA can circumvent state authority if the state is not taking sufficient action to address an immediate health crisis, and concluded that the agency should have done so in Flint.

Flint Funds Authorized

The U.S. Congress authorized $170 million in aid for drinking water systems in crisis in disadvantaged areas—specifically helping Flint—as part of a new water infrastructure bill passed earlier this month. Last spring, Flint began a “Fast Start” project to replace lead service lines leading to residents’ homes.

 

   

Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; Corrosion; Criminal acts; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Ethics; Funding; Government; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Latin America; Lead; North America; water damage

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