Mimesis Law
20 September 2019

The Flint Water Fiasco: Fix the Problem, Not the Blame

Apr. 21, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — The Michigan Attorney General’s office filed charges against three people for their roles in the Flint water crisis. Two employees of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby, and Michael Glasgow, the City of Flint’s lab and water quality supervisor.

Prysby faces six criminal counts: two charges of misconduct in office; and one count each of conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, engaging in a treatment violation that violates the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act and engaging in a monitoring violation that violates the Michigan’ Safe Drinking Water Act.

The five charges against Busch are misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, engaging in a treatment violation that violates Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act, and engaging in a monitoring violation that violates the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act.

Glasgow was charged with two counts of tampering with evidence and willful neglect of office.

The misconduct in office charges stem from allegations of misleading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Genesee County Health Department about the safety of the water supply, while the tampering counts are related to falsified or incomplete sample readings meant to cover up the fact that the water supply was unsafe.

To get a really solid grasp of what’s happened, it’s necessary to dive deep into the weeds of the fascinating topic of municipal water politics in southeastern Michigan. [Ed. note: about 2000 words deleted]. In summary, the problems stemmed from Flint’s decision to switch from getting its water from Lake Huron via Detroit to getting it from Lake Huron via a regional consortium. Unfortunately, there was a gap between disconnecting from Detroit and connecting to the consortium.

For financial reasons, Flint decided to get its water from the Flint River in the interim. The combination of the higher acidity of the Flint River and lead pipes in the city water supply system was the proximate cause of the crisis. The immediate cause was the failure to provide “optimized corrosion control treatment,”(OCCT) treating the river water with chemicals to prevent lead contamination. The criminal allegations are that the people involved lied about the necessity, existence, and extent of the OCCT, and fudged the data indicating that there was a problem.

It’s worth noting that Glasgow, at least, reports getting pressure from superiors:

“I was reluctant before, but after looking at the monitoring schedule and our current staffing, I do not anticipate giving the OK to begin sending water out anytime soon,” Glasgow’s email says. “If water is distributed from this plant in the next couple weeks, it will be against my direction.

“I need time to adequately train additional staff and to update our monitoring plans before I will feel we are ready. I will reiterate this to management above me, but they seem to have their own agenda.”

There’s a line in the movie Rising Sun where Sean Connery’s character says:

The Japanese have a saying, “Fix the problem, not the blame.” Find out what’s fucked up and fix it. Nobody gets blamed. We’re always after who fucked up. Their way is better.

Of course, fixing the blame is usually much more interesting. In the aftermath of this crisis, it’s much more cathartic to focus our ire on these three middle managers, and not have to do the hard thinking and hard work of actually ensuring that a city of 100,000 people doesn’t have lead in its water. Maybe there was criminal conduct on the part of the three defendants, or maybe not. That’s why we have courts, trials, and standards of proof. If they did anything wrong, they’ll have to answer for it.

But the roots of this outrage aren’t with these three men. For that matter, the outrage isn’t even the contamination of the water supply. The outrage is that when the problem was discovered, when Flintstones started complaining about brown, foamy water and their children getting rashes from bathing; when a pediatrician provided the scientific evidence that children were drinking poison; the response of their government was assure them everything was fine and, in private, dismiss them as a bunch of whiners.

That’s not because the people responsible woke up and decided one day to poison an entire city for kicks. It’s because the citizens with whose safety they were entrusted was less important than the bottom line. The criminal cases will go however they go. In the end, they don’t really matter. What matters is that every lead line Flint is dug up and replaced, and the right steps are taken to ensure that this doesn’t happen again, in Flint or anywhere else. But apparently, that’s too much to ask.

Nevertheless, politicians of both parties have praised the Attorney General’s investigation and the charges. Indeed, they should inspire us all to stand up and give a loud, rousing…

Meh.

3 Comments on this post.

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  • Bruce Coulson
    21 April 2016 at 10:22 am - Reply

    Flint is dead. The cost for fixing the problem would be astronomical, and no one will provide those resources to a bankrupt community. A modern ghost town, created by official neglect.

  • Scott Jacobs
    21 April 2016 at 5:13 pm - Reply

    Unfortunately, there was a gap between disconnecting from Detroit and connecting to the consortium. For financial reasons, Flint decided to get its water from the Flint River in the interim.

    This is not entirely accurate. While it is true that there would be a delay in being hooked up to the consortium, the gap in supply was caused by Detroit basically saying “You want to disconnect in a few years to get your water from another supplier? Well, how about you find a supplier right now, because we’re cutting you off.” That forced the city to use water from the Flint river in the interim. Had Detroit not opted to take it’s ball and go home, Flint never would have used the river water.