Michigan's attorney general filed criminal charges against three people involved in testing in Flint's water for lead on Wednesday, months after contaminated water fueled widespread anger among residents and a national outcry.
"This is a road back to restoring faith and confidence in all Michigan families in their government," state Attorney General Bill Schuette said Wednesday as he announced charges against two state regulators and a city employee for official misconduct, evidence-tampering, and other offenses, saying they had neglected their duties to provide safe drinking water.
Mr. Schuette said there will be more charges – "that I can guarantee" – while warning that "no one is off the table."
The announcement of the charges – coming months after officials repeatedly defended the April 2014 decision made by a state-appointed emergency manager to switch the city's water supply to the Flint River – marked a more decisive break in the long-running crisis.
Unlike other politically connected scandals that have ensnared state officials, such as mishandling of evidence in tens of thousands of cases in a Massachusetts drug lab and New Jersey's "Bridgegate," the investigation has also led to more serious charges for some of the officials involved. In Flint, some have also called for the resignation of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
Michael Prysby, a former district engineer with the state's Department of Environmental Quality and Stephen Busch, a supervisor in the department’s office that handled drinking water, were charged with misconduct, conspiracy, tampering with test results, and misdemeanor violations of state clean-water laws. The felonies could yield up to four to five years in prison, the Associated Press reports.
A key allegation is that the two men did not order anti-corrosion chemicals, which could have prevented the release of lead, to be added to the water to coat the city’s aging pipes. They pleaded not guilty and were released on bail. Both men were suspended without pay.
Michael Glasgow, a utilities administrator who oversaw operations of the city's water plant at the time, was charged with tampering with evidence for allegedly falsifying water test results. He was also charged with willful neglect of duty and could face up to four years in prison.
A slew of e-mails sent by the three men, which were also obtained by local reporters through public records requests, revealed that they had doubts about whether using the Flint River as a water source would be safe.
Testing of the city's water was also problematic, records obtained by the Flint Journal reveal.
Water samples sent to state labs during the beginning of this year were marked as having come from homes with lead service lines, but actually came from homes with plumbing made of copper, galvanized steel, or other materials, which carry less risk of lead leaching into the water.
That appears to violate guidelines from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which say that water sampling should be done at "high-risk" locations to determine whether lead is present in the water as quickly as possible.
But despite the attorney general's promises of accountability, some residents, who have been relying on bottled water and filtered water for months, are skeptical.
"It's a good first step, but it's a small step," Flint resident Melissa Mays told the AP. "These are lower-level people, and I want to know who was instructing them to do what they did. I think it's important that we can see some form of accountability being laid out, but at the end of the day we still can’t drink or bathe in our water safely."
But other politically connected scandals have had different outcomes. In the case of the Massachusetts drug lab, chemist Annie Dookhan was sentenced to three to five years in prison for falsifying drug test results, but attempts to hold higher-ranking state officials financially liable have been dismissed, most recently in March by a federal jury.
Ms. Dookhan was released early from prison after serving two years and four months, her lawyer said last week.
The 2013 closing of lanes of traffic on the George Washington Bridge, which became known as "Bridgegate," implicating officials close to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has also fizzled.
Last week, lawyers for Governor Christie's former chief of staff and a former Port Authority director attempted to have federal charges dismissed.
The inconvenience to motorists caused by the lane closures, which officials have said was an attempt to punish the mayor of nearby Fort Lee, N.J., for declining to endorse Christie's re-election, shouldn't be considered a federal crime, they argued.
The crisis in Flint, a once-booming industrial city with a majority African-American population, has also provoked charges of environmental racism after officials repeatedly denied that the water was unsafe last fall.
Governor Snyder apologized to residents in January and has introduced a plan to revamp lead-testing standards.