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Will anyone be prosecuted for Flint?

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Last summer, when the ACLU of Michigan and Virginia Tech University professor Marc Edwards began filing Freedom of Information Act requests to try and get to the truth about problems with Flint’s water, a limited number of emails were turned over. But with the release by the state of some 20,000 documents in recent weeks from a variety of state agencies, as well as emails to and from Gov. Rick Snyder in January and documents obtained by news outlets and others, the picture that began coming into focus last year has gained even more clarity.

The slow trickle of documents has turned into a flood. And the higher the flow of information rises, the worse things look. What’s evident is just how negligent the federal, state, and local governments were in protecting the health and well-being of Flint’s residents.

Warnings were being raised in a variety of places, but they were either ignored or, worse, buried.

In April 2014, just before a state-mandated switch to the Flint River was about to be made, Flint water plant operator Mike Glasgow wrote to MDEQ officials warning that the plant wasn’t ready to begin adequately treating the river water:

“I assumed there would be dramatic changes to our monitoring,” Glasgow wrote. “I have people above me making plans to distribute water ASAP. 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. If water is distributed from this plant in the next couple of 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.”

Despite that warning, the plant began treating river water on April 25, 2014. At that point, the city had been under state control for more than two years.

Although the city council had voted to join the newly formed Karegnondi Water Authority, which is building a pipeline that will bring water from Lake Huron to Genesee County, it was the state that made the decision Flint would get its water from the river while the pipeline was being built.

Again, there were warnings. In 2013, when the river was still being considered as a permanent water source for the city of nearly 100,000, one staffer at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality wrote to then-department director Dan Wyant and others in the department that switching to the river posed an “an increased microbial risk to public health” and an “increased risk of disinfection by-product (carcinogen) exposure to public health.”

Both fears quickly came to fruition after the switch to the river. In the summer of 2014 the city issued a series of boil water notices because of an E. coli outbreak. When chlorine use was increased to combat the bacterial problem, residents began being exposed to elevated levels of total trihalomethanes, a carcinogenic byproduct of chlorine. Residents weren’t informed of that risk to their health until January 2015.

The now well-publicized issue of lead contamination first became known publicly in July, when the ACLU of Michigan first published a leaked internal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency memo written by agency water expert Miguel Del Toral.

We know the MDEQ responded to that alarm by telling the people of Flint that, when it came to concerns about lead in their water, they could just “relax.” That statement was made even though the state’s own tests had shown lead levels in Flint’s water had nearly doubled between the second half of 2014 and the first half of 2015.

What’s recently been revealed was that, along with the denial of a lead problem state officials knew existed, information regarding an outbreak of the pneumonia-like Legionnaires’ disease following the switch to the river was also kept from the public.

The Flint Journal report, based on emails the paper obtained, revealed: “Worry about the river’s possible role as a source of Legionnaires’ dates back to at least Oct. 17, 2014, when representatives of the county Health Department and the city’s water treatment plant met, discussing the county’s ‘concerns regarding the increase in Legionella cases and possible association with the municipal water system.’”

It wasn’t until January 2016 that Snyder held a press conference addressing the issue of Legionnaires’ and the possible connection between the disease and the state’s ill-fated decision to begin using the river in a shortsighted attempt to save no more than $5 million.

So, the state and city knew for nine months that residents were being exposed to elevated levels of a carcinogenic byproduct of chlorine because faulty treatment had led to E. coli bacterial contamination.

The issue of lead contamination of the city’s water was first raised by the EPA in February 2015, but Snyder didn’t allow Flint to return to the cleaner, safer water provided by Detroit until 10 months later.

And an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that took the lives of 10 people was not publicly acknowledged by the state until 15 months after officials became aware of the issue.

There’s a line about treating people like mushrooms by keeping them in the dark and feeding them bullshit. That’s exactly what happened in Flint, with this tragic addendum: Along with being kept in the dark and being fed one load of crap after another, they were also being forced to use poisoned water. With state and federal criminal investigations under way, the question now is: Who, if anyone, is going to go to be prosecuted over this, and will the charges include manslaughter?

Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. He was recently named Michigan Journalist of the Year for his coverage of the Flint water crisis. You can reach him at 313-578-6834 or cguyette@aclumich.org.

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