Burr & Forman

01.4.2017   |   Blog Articles, Environmental Law Matters, Water Regulations

New Flint Indictments Just in Time for the Holidays

On December 20, 2016, Michigan’s Attorney General announced additional indictments in the Flint water crisis.  The indictments against two former emergency managers and two former City of Flint executives bring to 13 the number of individuals who have been criminally charged in the fallout from a decision in 2014 to separate the City from its historic water supply source, the City of Detroit, and to begin supplying drinking water from the Flint River (N.Y. Times).

The charges are detailed, along with some history, in a press release from Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office (AG Press Release).

The story of the specific change that led to all the indictments started in April, 2014, when  emergency managers for the City implemented a decision intended to save money by drawing drinking water directly from the Flint River.  A timeline found here provides a summary of events associated with the water crisis, but that particular problem was precipitated by a broader effort to address Flint’s long-running financial difficulties using procedures established by State law.  In Michigan, when a local government is determined to be in a financial-emergency condition, the Governor is authorized to appoint an emergency manager with the local government’s agreement, primarily as an alternative to bankruptcy.  Once in place, an emergency manager has broad powers including the authority to reduce pay, outsource work, reorganize departments, modify employee contracts and make other financial decisions.  Those efforts in Flint included a focus on the cost of water being provided to Flint under a contract with  Detroit.  Initially, a decision was made to join a regional water authority that was in the process of planning a pipeline to draw water from Lake Huron, but that project would necessarily take time to complete.  In the interim, the decision was made to terminate the contract with Detroit and draw water from the Flint River.

Two of the individuals charged, Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, were successive  emergency managers who were involved with implementing the decision and responding to the ensuing crisis.  One interesting take on the situation argues that the indictments are really themselves a veiled attack on the emergency manager law (Detroit Metro Times).  However, as we have noted previously, emergency managers did not unilaterally make the decision to draw water from the river; that proposal first had the approval of State regulators (Blog, October, 2015).

These latest indictments indicate a continued effort to hold individuals accountable for decisions that led to the crisis and the response, but the crisis itself continues for many residents who cannot yet safely use water provided by the City.  While the holidays were certainly gloomy for the four new indictees, and perhaps for others who face indictment in the near future, the situation also remains bleak for most of the residents of the City with no apparent near-term solution.

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