Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette (R) on Wednesday filed civil charges against two engineering firms that he said “botched” their work on Flint’s water supply system, contributing to the city’s ongoing lead-polluted water crisis.
The suit also names Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, or LAN, a Texas-based water engineering firm that began working with Flint in 2013 to prepare the city for its ill-fated switch to the Flint River as its source of drinking water. Schuette alleges that the company failed to ensure that Flint complied with safe drinking water laws, namely by failing to add “corrosion control” chemicals that could have helped prevent lead leaching into the city’s aging pipes.
“They failed miserably in their job, basically botched it,” Schuette said at a press conference Wednesday morning. “They didn’t stop the water in Flint from being poisoned. They made it worse.”
Both companies are facing civil charges of professional negligence and public nuisance. Veolia was also charged with fraud. In essence, the firms are accused of ignoring key warning signs about problems with Flint’s drinking water and helping to create a public health hazard with no end in sight. Veolia also is accused of making false and misleading statements about the safety of the city’s water. Wednesday’s suit seeks monetary damages likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars, Schuette’s office said.
“They violated their legal duties and caused the Flint Water crisis to occur, continue and worsen,” the complaint states. “As a result, the state of Michigan suffered damaged for past, ongoing, and future harm to public health, destruction of public property, and cost to public resources.”
Both companies also also have been named in lawsuits filed by city residents.
Veolia said in a statement that it is “disappointed” by the civil charges “and will vigorously defend itself against these unwarranted allegations of wrongdoing.” The company noted that Michigan’s attorney general had not spoken with Veolia about its work in Flint, and that an official report by an independent task force “contained no reference to Veolia and assigned the company no blame or responsibility for the current crisis.”
A spokesman for LAN said in an emailed statement that the attorney general’s case “has blatantly mischaracterized the role of LAN’s service to Flint and ignores the findings of every public investigation into this tragedy that the key decisions concerning the treatment of the water from the Flint River were made by the City of Flint and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.” He added that the company “was not hired to operate the plant and had no responsibility for water quality, but, and although LAN was not asked, LAN had regularly advised that corrosion control should be added and that the system needed to be fully tested before going online.” The company also said it will defend itself against “these unfounded claims.”
The debacle in Flint began to unfold more than two years ago. For decades, the once-thriving industrial city had purchased water from Detroit, which was piped from Lake Huron, with anti-corrosion chemicals added along the way. In early 2014, with the city under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, officials switched to Flint River water as part of a money-saving measure. But the state’s environmental quality agency failed to ensure that corrosion-control additives were part of the new water supply.
Flint’s water was contaminated with toxic lead soon after, as the leaching of old pipes allowed rust, iron and lead to contaminate the city’s tap water. Thousands of children in the city have been exposed to the toxic substance. Most Flint residents remain on bottled water, even after the city switched back to its previous water source last fall.
Wednesday’s civil actions come roughly two months after investigators announced criminal charges against three state and and local workers for their role in the crisis. In April, Schuette announced more than a dozen separate criminal counts against two officials at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, as well as a Flint water quality supervisor.
Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby, the two state environmental quality officials, each face multiple felonies, including misconduct in office and tampering with evidence. Prysby faces an additional felony charge for authorizing a permit for the Flint treatment plant “knowing it would fail to provide clean and safe drinking water to families,” Schuette said. The two men also are charged with misdemeanor violations of the state’s drinking water regulations.
Michael Glasgow, a Flint water official, faces a felony charge of tampering with evidence for allegedly altering and falsifying reports to state and federal regulators that made it appear lead levels in the city’s water supply were lower than they actually were. He also faces a misdemeanor charge of willful neglect of duty.
Those cases are ongoing.
Schuette on Wednesday reiterated his “guarantee” that more charges related to Flint’s water crisis are on the horizon.
“Our criminal investigation is ongoing,” he said. “So stay tuned.”