The Flint Inquisition Begins

Robert Carpenter, Editor-in-Chief, Underground Construction Magazineby Robert Carpenter, Editor in Chief

Two significant developments related to the Flint, MI, lead-tainted water crisis popped up recently and, sad to say, I’m not surprised. As the repercussions continue to reverberate, public pressure mounts on local and state officials who in any way could be held culpable for the disaster. Now, predictably, it is time for those politicians in charge to assign blame and try to right their sinking ship.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed a civil lawsuit against both Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam (LAN) and water operating company, Veolia, claiming their negligence caused and exacerbated Flint’s water crisis. When political careers are at stake, the list of candidates to take the fall can broaden in scope no matter how much it is off-target. The engineering firm of LAN, along with Veolia, were hired by the city of Flint to aid with its major water issues. LAN and Veolia represent easy targets. Someone has to pay for the state and city’s mistakes, so why not outsiders?

This makes for great headlines to help assuage public sentiment against state officials. Ironically, a task force appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder largely blamed the state for the emergency and didn’t even mention LAN in its comprehensive report.

Most likely the Michigan Attorney General knows he doesn’t have much of a case either. This is a civil lawsuit, not criminal. Odds are it will never make it to court. But if it diverts attention and political heat away for even a short time, it’s an effective gambit. From the attorney general’s perspective, the best case scenario would be for LAN and the state to settle out of court. The worst case scenario would be that the attorney general drops the case after much investigation and due diligence, but not without admonishing LAN for moral turpitude in the execution of its fiduciary responsibilities towards the citizens of Flint and Michigan. Either scenario may be morally flawed, but that’s generally how this type of lawsuit plays out.

Kudos to LAN for deciding not to play the political game, as has its co-defendant Veolia. Both companies are vigorously fighting back and producing a paper trail demonstrating their fulfilling of fiduciary efforts. LAN specifically warned the city of Flint about corrosion issues and the needs to test the system extensively when changes were implemented. The warnings fell on deaf ears. In fact, LAN’s scope of work was reduced to the point that the engineering firm was not involved in water quality determinations in any form.

The second very interesting development was also somewhat ironic. It was revealed that Michigan Attorney General Schuette’s investigation is now asking to more than triple the amount previously allocated by the state. Originally, $1.5 million was allocated so the attorney general and the law firm hired to handle the investigation, Flood Law, could determine fault. That was apparently not enough. The attorney general is asking for an additional $3.4 million.

Explained a spokesperson, “The attorney general is running an independent, broad-based investigation team that will leave no stone unturned. That is what the citizens of Flint, and Michigan as a whole, want and deserve.” Of course, there was no comment on the fact that the hired-gun law firm, Flood Law, is a major campaign contributor to both the attorney general and the embattled governor.
Ultimately, people want and need answers as to how this disaster could have happened. But politically, it presents a nightmare. A scapegoat is needed and the way this investigation is proceeding, it is increasingly taking the path of a witch hunt rather than simply seeking the truth.

I concur that the blame needs to be properly addressed and those responsible removed from their positions to avoid further errors in judgment, and even held accountable within the parameters of the law. There seems to be plenty of blame to go around ranging from local officials blindly following bad advice from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to the federal Environmental Protection Agency – all of which should absolutely be held responsible for ignoring warnings signs and sound engineering practices. (Ironically, one of those companies issuing strong warnings and waving caution flags was LAN.)

At some point the childish finger-pointing and inane attempts to blame someone needs to stop. It smacks of political desperation and grandstanding. Perhaps the Michigan attorney general does have some kind of smoking gun document that would implicate LAN and Veolia, and if so, they should be prosecuted. Most likely, however, no such evidence exists outside of hearsay and inaccurate assumptions generated by those officials themselves up to their necks in alligators and seeking to deflect blame.

Flint, the state of Michigan and the EPA need to accept their missteps, figure out what went wrong immediately and implement proper procedures so these mistakes are never repeated. The repercussions are just too horrendous to do anything else.

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