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Michigan Officials Charged in Flint Water Poisoning, But Gov. Snyder Has Not Even Been Questioned

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The first criminal charges have been filed in the ongoing Flint water contamination crisis that exposed nearly 100,000 residents to poisonous levels of lead. Two state employees have been charged with misleading the U.S. government about the problem: Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby. Meanwhile, a Flint employee, Michael Glasgow, is charged with altering water test results. The charges come as Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder said he has not been questioned by prosecutors in connection with the crisis. Protesters have called for Governor Snyder to resign over his handling of the Flint water crisis, which began when the city’s unelected emergency manager, appointed by Governor Snyder, switched the source of the city’s drinking water from the Detroit system to the corrosive Flint River, and the water corroded Flint’s aging pipes, causing lead to leach into the drinking water. We get reaction from Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan who helped bring the crisis to light. His work focuses on emergency management and open government. Guyette just won the 2016 Hillman Prize for Web Journalism as well as the Aronson Award for Outstanding Pioneering Reporting.

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Video squareStoryDec 21, 2016Flint: As 2 Unelected Emergency Managers Are Charged over Water Poisoning, Will Gov. Snyder Be Next?
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in Denver, Colorado, with Nermeen Shaikh in New York. We’re on a 100-city tour. We’ll be at Boulder Theater tonight. And on Friday night, we’ll be at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. But right now we’re turning to Michigan. Nermeen?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Michigan, where the first criminal charges have been filed in the ongoing Flint water contamination crisis that exposed nearly 100,000 residents to high levels of lead. Two state employees have been charged with misleading the U.S. government about the problem: Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby. Meanwhile, a Flint employee, Michael Glasgow, is charged with altering water test results. On Wednesday, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced the charges, saying there are more to come.

ATTORNEY GENERAL BILL SCHUETTE: These employees of the Department of Environmental Quality had a duty. They had a duty to protect the health of families and citizens of Flint. They failed. They failed to discharge their duties. They failed. They failed in their responsibilities to protect the health and safety of families of Flint. They failed Michigan families. … Each and every person who breaks the law will be held accountable. We’ll follow the facts without fear or favor, and we’ll go wherever the truth takes us—and in this case, wherever the emails take us. These charges are only the beginning, and there will be more to come. That, I can guarantee you.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The charges come as Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder said he has not been questioned by prosecutors in connection with the Flint water contamination crisis. At a news conference Wednesday, Snyder said he doesn’t believe he broke any laws.

GOV. RICK SNYDER: We’ve been fully cooperating with this investigation, and we’ll continue to do so. And we’ll pursue any wrongdoing and hold people accountable. … With respect to this investigation, I have not been questioned or been interviewed at this point in time. Our office has been cooperating.

AMY GOODMAN: Protesters have called for Michigan Governor Snyder to resign and face charges. The Flint water crisis began when Flint’s unelected emergency manager, appointed by Governor Snyder, switched the source of Flint’s drinking water from the Detroit system, which it had relied on for more than half a century, to the corrosive Flint River. The water corroded Flint’s aging pipes, causing poisonous levels of lead to leach into the drinking water, among other poisons.

Well, for more, we’re joined now by Curt Guyette, investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan, who helped bring this crisis to light. His work focuses on emergency management and open government. He just won the 2016 Hillman Prize for Web Journalism, as well as the Aronson Award for Outstanding Pioneering Reporting.

Curt Guyette, it’s great to have you back on Democracy Now! and to have spent time with you in Flint. Talk about the significance of the charges against these three men who work for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

CURT GUYETTE: Well, there’s a lot of significance in a lot of different ways. But certainly, what they established in these charges was the misconduct and, really, the willful disregard for the well-being of the people of Flint in multiple different ways. From the beginning, the plant wasn’t ready to begin operation, yet state officials forced the city to rush into treating the river water rather than staying on the Detroit water. The fact that they didn’t require corrosion control, which was a major fact in this, that they didn’t use corrosion control caused the lead to leach into the water. And then, after they started to see that their mistakes were resulting in high lead levels, they attempted to cover that up, either by altering evidence, tampering evidence, as the charges say, the way they were conducting the tests, multiple ways they were trying to minimize the amount of lead being found in these tests to cover up the fact that they made a tragic mistake in switching to the river in the first place and not using corrosion control, as the law requires.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Curt Guyette, I want to go to a clip that appears of you in the documentary Here’s to Flint. Curt Guyette questioned Flint’s former water quality supervisor, Mike Glasgow, about the city’s lead testing.

CURT GUYETTE: How are you able to determine that every one of those homes had a lead service line?

MICHAEL GLASGOW: You know, so we tried to go through our records and see—

CURT GUYETTE: Why was I not provided with those records when I filed a Freedom of Information Act request?

MICHAEL GLASGOW: That’s a—that’s a good question. I don’t have an answer for you right now, to be honest with you. Sometimes records get lost. So, we just know—

CURT GUYETTE: Right. So you don’t necessarily have all the records?

MICHAEL GLASGOW: That could be a possibility. I can’t [inaudible] now.

CURT GUYETTE: So, how were you—again, how were you able to determine that every single house had a lead service line?

MICHAEL GLASGOW: We’re not, really. We throw bottles out everywhere just to collect as many as we can to try to hit our number. Yeah, we’re still looking for the records.

CURT GUYETTE: Even though it’s after the fact. The reports have already been submitted.

MICHAEL GLASGOW: Oh, yeah, the reports have been submitted.

CURT GUYETTE: And the compliance—and the compliance was based on those reports.

MICHAEL GLASGOW: That’s how they base their compliance, yes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Curt Guyette in the ACLU documentary Here’s to Flint. So, Curt Guyette, Michael Glasgow was one of the people charged. Could you respond to what the charge was and whether you think it was adequate?

CURT GUYETTE: Glasgow was in charge of the city’s water treatment plant at the time. He was also overseeing the testing. And what’s being called into question, in part, is the way the tests were conducted. And so, yeah, I think it is appropriate. I mean, he was on the front lines. And a lot of people I talked to in Flint think that Mr. Glasgow is a good guy, that he was being helpful in doing the tests, and have some good feelings toward him. He’s also—he spoke out, in an email, when they were ready to bring the plant online. He said, “We’re not ready to do that.” And so, there was a little surprise, I think, that he was charged, because, in some ways, he did try to do the right thing.

But the bigger picture is that the actions of all three people who have been charged so far resulted in the contamination of a town’s water supply and the lead poisoning of people, especially children. And so, the fact that they’re bringing criminal charges seems entirely appropriate. And I think what’s also important to point out is that when these charges were announced, the attorney general, the state attorney general, said this was just the beginning, which is the way these investigations typically go. You start at the bottom, bring charges against people, use that as a wedge and pressure them to give up more information, and then you work your way up the ladder, which is what the attorney general indicated is going to happen in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Curt Guyette, let’s talk about that ladder. Governor Snyder says he hasn’t been questioned by prosecutors. What is the governor’s role here? Do you think he’ll be charged? Do you think he should be charged? And what should he be charged with, if so?

CURT GUYETTE: You know, Amy, I just can’t answer that. I think the investigation has to run its course. And it’s going to uncover more information as it goes along. Right now there’s not any evidence indicating that the governor was directly involved in this, but not all the evidence has come out yet. And as this goes along, as people get charged and there’s deals worked out with whatever information that they give up, and then they keep moving up the ladder. I thought it was a little surprising that the governor hasn’t been questioned to this point, but maybe that’s part of the investigation: They’re waiting ’til they have everything in hand before they go and start asking the governor questions about this.

AMY GOODMAN: Curt Guyette, this is such—this is such an astounding story. I mean, you have April 2014—Flint is cut off from its traditional supply of half a century, the Detroit water system, which was fine, to save a couple million dollars, and linked to the corrosive Flint River. Then, within months, the GM plant in Flint said they couldn’t work with the water, because it was corroding the engines that they were producing. And the unelected emergency manager, chosen by the governor, gave them a waiver to link back to the Detroit system, as the people were protesting and increasingly getting sicker. Isn’t this an indication that the governor’s man in Flint knew exactly what was happening?

CURT GUYETTE: Oh, definitely, people should have known what was happening when that occurred, just the general aesthetics of the water, the bacterial contamination, and then the contamination of the water with a carcinogenic byproduct of chlorine. You know, it was just—they didn’t know what they were doing, and they were bumbling from step to step to step. But then they were also trying to cover up their problems. But certainly, last July, when we published the—Miguel Del Toral’s EPA internal memo, sounding the alarm, everybody knew at that point, or should have known at that point.

Here’s one thing I think is also interesting in this, which is, one year ago, almost exactly one year ago, on the one-year anniversary of the changeover, there was a protest in Flint, maybe a hundred people marching through the streets, little kids with bullhorns saying, “Stop poisoning the children.” And no one was paying any attention at all. And in this past year, it’s gone from that situation to everybody knows about Flint. The problem with lead in water has become part of a national conversation. And it’s because those people who were protesting were relentless in trying to get to the truth. And that gets overlooked a lot in this, how citizen-driven exposure of this crisis has been, and where it’s led because of those efforts.

AMY GOODMAN: Curt Guyette, you were—you are an investigative reporter who’s won a number of awards. You were challenging these officials. Emails were released that showed that the governor was being warned by his own staff that this is an absolute crisis. What do you think is the most damning of those emails that indicate the chain of command and what Governor Snyder knew?

CURT GUYETTE: You know, what I have seen so far has—it’s come very close to the governor, in terms of his inner circle being warned that there was a problem. But as you say, when GM got a waiver to switch back to the Detroit system while the people of Flint were forced to continue drinking poisonous water, so there was failure all the way along the line. But again, anything directly implicating the governor, I haven’t seen anything yet that shows that. There was a kind of firewall. And what took place, if it took place at all, was conversations. There wasn’t emails, that I’ve seen yet, directly linking the governor into this.

But here’s another thing. Of the emails that were released, one of them had to do with state police bicycle patrols in Flint. And the governor was directly communicating with people about these bicycle patrols and how they were being received by the public. So he was, you know, very much hands-on with something as relatively minor as that, but yet he was supposedly completely out of the loop with all this Flint water crisis? It’s really kind of hard to believe.

AMY GOODMAN: Curt Guyette, we thank you for being with us and for your investigative reporting. His work focuses on emergency management and open government. Curt Guyette just won the 2016 Hillman Prize for Web Journalism and the Aronson Award for Outstanding Pioneering Reporting.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, President Obama is in Saudi Arabia. We’ll talk with Bill Hartung about the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Stay with us.

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