Michigan drops Flint prosecutions

The Michigan Attorney General has dropped charges against eight of the defendants in cases arising out of the Flint water supply screw-up.

Prosecutors stunned the city of Flint, Mich., on Thursday by dropping all pending charges against officials accused of ruining the community’s drinking water and ignoring signs of a crisis, casting doubt on what some residents had seen as a small but tangible step toward justice.

Fifteen state and local officials, including emergency managers who ran the city and a member of the governor’s cabinet, had been accused by state prosecutors of crimes as serious as involuntary manslaughter. Seven had already taken plea deals. Eight more, including most of the highest-ranking officials, were awaiting trial.

The wide net cast by prosecutors never did make any sense, so this is probably the right decision.

The Associated Press captured the exact instant when everything went wrong.

Nike Glasgow, the plant’s laboratory supervisor at the time, says he asked district engineer Mike Prysby of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality how often staffers would need to check the water for proper levels of phosphate, a chemical they intended to add to prevent lead corrosion from the pipes. Prysby’s response, according to Glasgow: “You don’t need to monitor phosphate because you’re not required to add it.”

Recalling the meeting Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press, Glasgow said he was taken aback by the state regulator’s instruction; treating drinking water with anti-corrosive additives was routine practice. Glasgow said his gaze shifted to a consulting firm engineer in attendance, who also looked surprised.

“Then,” Glasgow said, “we went on to the next question.”

That’s when everything went bad. The regulations require phosphate, and the actual circumstances required phosphate; the engineer and chemist both knew that and, instead of drawing light sabers and making a He-man fight out of it right then, they passively rolled over. That was a technical failure, and an ethical failure, and they must bear primary responsibility for everything that followed.

There has not been, yet, a very good public account of the cover-up that eventually followed, but I seriously doubt that high-level administrators and the governor’s office knew anything about it. Almost certainly, they shrugged and repeated the assurances they were getting from below:, e.g., “The chemist and the engineers tell me everything is fine.”

There probably was plenty of negligence, but criminal behavior? No. Almost certainly not.

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