More criminal charges in Flint

Five more public officials have been criminally charged in connection with Flint’s tainted water.

Attorney General Bill Schuette on Wednesday filed an involuntary manslaughter felony charge against state health director Nick Lyon and four other state and Flint officials over the death of a man who contracted Legionnaires’ disease during Flint’s water crisis.

Genesee County District Court Judge G. David Guinn allowed the charges to be filed Wednesday morning, making Lyon the highest ranking state official in Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration to be charged criminally over Flint’s tainted water.

With problems that made an appearance in even last year’s presidential campaigns, Flint has become a high-profile disaster that’s going to destroy a lot of careers; unfortunately, that probably is going to interfere with learning the real lessons of this catastrophe.

First and foremost, this was a failure of project management and character. The Associated Press filed a story that captures the exact instant that it all went wrong.

Mike 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.”

Civil engineers deliver tens of billions of gallons of potable water to consumers every single day; we know how to do that, and Flint posed no mysteries or even unusual problems. The management failure is that a regulator was permitted to make a design/operation decision — something that should never happen. Regulators should verify compliance with regulatory standards, and that’s all. Engineers make the design and operation decisions.

This is not merely turf-war stuff. There are protocols for who-does-what that are grounded in the more than 200-years of experience of success, progress, failure since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and they are embedded in our laws and the most modern release of Microsoft Project. There are reasons for the very particular way that things are done, and those reasons range from assuring that competent people are in the right place to make needful decisions to easily identifying the responsible party if things go sideways.

The plant chemist and the engineer should never have submitted to Prysby’s usurpation of their responsibilities; that’s a management failure. And when Prysby impinged upon their responsibilities to make a really-reallyreally stupid decision, they should have fought back; that they didn’t was a character failure.

Those were the failures that set everything else in motion, including the coverups and deaths.

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