Howes: Flint case gets closer to root of problem

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Now we’re getting to the nub of the Flint water crisis.

Criminal charges detailed Wednesday by state Attorney General Bill Schuette against two state officials and a city utilities administrator, each implicated in the mess of lead-tainted water, for the first time place some culpability for the contaminated water inside the city itself.

The allegations and the promise of more to come suggest the origins of the debacle run deeper than alleged partisan incompetence by Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, or duplicitous screw-ups by “career bureaucrats” inside the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and its counterparts in the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Snyder: Charges take Flint crisis to ‘whole new level’

“Each and every person who breaks the law will be held accountable,” Schuette said in Flint, pointedly declining to exclude anyone, including the governor, from the ongoing investigation. “No one is above the law.”

That’s as it should be. For all the opprobrium heaped on Snyder and his team, officials in the MDEQ, the state Department of Community Health and the EPA — much of it justified and corroborated by tens of thousands of pages of documents — the narrative of the Flint water crisis would be incomplete without acknowledging the root cause of the whole fiasco:

Namely, Flint City Council’s decision, endorsed by its sitting Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz, then-Mayor Dayne Walling and the state Treasury, to end the city’s 50-year tie to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in favor of the new Karegnondi Water Authority, or KWA.

Schuette on Flint: More charges coming

Detroit answered the decision with a year-long deadline to find a new source of water, culminating in an emergency manager-ordered switch to the Flint River. The move shocked the city’s water system with untreated water and exposed the minority-majority city to two-years-and-counting of inconvenience and anxiety, plummeting property values and deepening public health concerns.

Animating all of it was the politics of water. Here was the chance, enabled by the signature of an appointed emergency manager, to sever once and for all Flint’s dependence on high-priced water pumped from Lake Huron through the Detroit-owned system.

Elected officials would reap the political benefit of leaving the Detroit system, punctuated by Flint’s dismissal of then-bankrupt Detroit’s final offer to continue supplying water until the city could draw it from KWA. And the backers of the KWA would get what they needed to make the new authority’s numbers work — Flint’s water customers.

“After the termination letter came in from Detroit, it seemed like it became all political from that point on,” Jeff Wright, the Genesee County drain commissioner and CEO of KWA, told NewsTalk 760-WJR’s Frank Beckmann. “And of course with the basic disaster in Flint, it made it even more political. I think there’s a lot of individuals out there that want to try to disperse the blame.”

He’s got that right. And for months, blame has been heaped on the Republican governor; the state departments, and their directors, answerable to him; the EPA, whose ranking officials effectively silenced one of their own water quality experts who raised pointed (and correct) concerns about Flint.

The charges issued Wednesday against MDEQ managers Stephen Busch and Mike Prysby, as well as Mike Glasgow, a Flint water administrator, signal that Schuette’s investigation is undertaking a wider, more pitiless examination of the intersecting chains of miscues, faulty decision-making and mendacity visited upon Flint.

Schuette’s investigators, headed by former FBI Agent-in-Charge Andy Arena, are combing a cache of 2.5 million relevant documents. That’s far more than activist groups and the news media have acquired through either Freedom of Information Act requests or so-called “document dumps” engineered by the Snyder administration.

The message: this case will keep on giving. Even as the Snyder administration tries to push ahead with efforts to repair damage to Flint, to introduce tough, new lead standards for Michigan’s public water supply, to soon propose revisions of the emergency manager law and to toughen civil service procedures, parallel local, state and federal investigations will weigh on its remaining term.

Arena, a veteran of the federal investigation that claimed former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, revived his familiar train analogy Wednesday to remind players ensnared in the mess that boarding early is more likely to ensure better seats. Translation: no one, no matter how highly placed, is immune, and, second, investigators are prepared to make deals now to move higher up the chain.

“We’ve got a long way to go, a lot of people to interview, a lot of evidence to get,” Arena said. “Nobody’s off limits, either. This is the biggest case in the history of Michigan, and history will bear me out on this. This is widespread.”

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.