Back in 2014, while under the control of Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, the City of Flint started drawing its municipal water from the corrosive Flint River. As the former City Manager of Saginaw from 2006-13, Earley left his position in Saginaw after receiving an appointment from Gov. Rick Snyder to become Flint’s new ‘Emergency Manager’ in order to help solve that beleaguered city’s fiscal crisis.
During his tenure in Saginaw Earley earned the distinction of being an effective ‘hatchet man’ - dismantling the city’s police department and earning the Police Officer’s Association of Michigan’s ‘Horse’s Ass’ Award. while also gutting city employee health benefits, despite the fact he was also able to navigate an addendum to his retirement package that requires the city to pay him 10% of his salary to the ICMA Executive Retirement Plan, along with a $50,000 Life Insurance plan and 100% retiree Health Care & Prescription Drug benefits after his retirement.
Shortly after assuming his duties managing the City of Flint, the order was given for Flint to start drawing its municipal water from the corrosive Flint River, leading to a lead-contamination crisis in the city’s water supply that has led citizens fearing for their very health and resulted in the worst national environmental scandal since the notorious Times Beach crisis of 1983, which resulted in the evacuation of an entire city back in 1983 due to dioxin contamination.
Thanks to a probe by the ACLU of Michigan, who hired investigative reporter Curt Guyette to look into the city’s testing protocols, Guyette uncovered documents through the Freedom of Information Act tracing the Flint water crisis back to April 2014, when Darnell Earley rejected Detroit’s final offer to continue supplying clean, safe water to the city.
The corrosive nature of the river water also required that it be treated thoroughly before being released into the city’s aging water infrastructure, but the city failed to use the proper corrosion control methods and allowed lead particles from the municipal pipes to be drawn into the water.
Deceit & Deception
Despite being assured by Flint officials for months that their drinking water was safe, a probe by Guyette into the city’s testing protocols uncovered documents that showed that the City of Flint, with Michigan Department of Environmental Quality oversight, employed testing methods that skewed the outcome of lead tests of the water to ensure compliance with federal safety regulations. In other words, perpetrate an act of fraud of incomparable proportions.
Not long after the ACLU began looking into the problem, researchers from Virginia Tech tested the water themselves; and with the help of the ACLU and Flint citizens, their tests showed – along with a Hurley Children’s Hospital study – a significant spike in lead levels in Flint Children, which helped compel the state in October to allow Flint to return to the Detroit water system.
As a result of the diligence of the ACLU investigation, documents clearly show that with Emergency Manager Darnell Earley in control, the city severed its relationship with its water supplier, The Detroit Water & Sewage Department, and began drawing its water from the nearby Flint river.
Yet in a statement issued to the Flint Journal / MLive back in October, Earley claimed that: “Local civic leaders” – not the state of Michigan – made the decision to disconnect from the Detroit water supply, asserting that back in May, 2013, Mayor Dayne Walling and the Flint City Council in March 2013 approved a “long-term plan” that included the temporary use of the Flint river. \
While this resolution did not include support or opposition to using the river, Earley asserted that Flint river water was part of the overall plan presented to him by Walling and other city staff when he started working in Flint in October 2013. And true to his arrogance, Earley added: ‘Anyone who says otherwise is being disingenuous for whatever reason.” Walling, in turn, has labeled Earley’s claims about responsibility ‘blatantly false’ and City Council President Josh Freeman has said Earley’s story “amounts to a fairy tale.”
Amidst these assertions & counter assertions that attempt to affix blame and responsibility for the crisis, a series of uncovered emails over the past week has led to the implication of several of Gov. Snyder’s top staffers.
However, one correspondence from Earley is particularly telling, when he writes in an email pertaining to the final offer from the City of Detroit for continuing to provide Flint it’s water supply: “Thank you for the correspondence … which provides Flint with the option of continuing to purchase water from DWSD following the termination of the current contract. Thanks, but no thanks.”
“… the City of Flint has actively pursued using the Flint River as a temporary water source while the KWA pipeline is being constructed,” wrote Earley. “We expect the Flint Water Treatment Plant will be fully operational and capable of treating Flint River water…”
As calls for a thorough, independent investigation of this debacle increase, the denials of responsibility by the key players are disgusting, as they stumble around attempting to deflect blame. And while neo-politico celebrities such as Cher clamor for Snyder’s imprisonment seeing as Governor he was responsible for hiring the City Manager, it is especially disquieting that her outrage is not focused upon the man obviously responsible for creating it: Darnell Earley.
Demanding Accountability for a Crisis
In an effort to address this issue, the ACLU filed a notice of intent to sue on behalf of the families hurt by the lead poisoning. A notice of intent to sue is required under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act as a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit.
“In their short sighted effort to save a buck the leaders who were supposed to be protecting Flint’s citizens instead left them exposed to dangerously high levels of lead contamination,” said Michael Streinberg, legal director for the ACLU of Michigan. “Not only were the city and state’s actions harmful and misguided, they were illegal, too.”
Clearly, Darnell Earley has lied in a provable way by saying the Flint City Council made the decision before he was on board. Primarily, under the Emergency Manager legislation, the Flint City Council had no binding authority; and secondly, they only did decide to move over to Flint from Detroit once the new system was built.
In November, 2015, Earley was one of 14 officials named as defendants in a class action lawsuit brought in federal court by Flint residents. The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court in Detroit, alleges that "Defendants' conduct in exposing Flint residents to toxic water was so egregious and so outrageous that it shocks the conscience" and that "For more than 18 months, state and local government officials ignored irrefutable evidence that the water pumped from the Flint River exposed (users) to extreme toxicity."
Along with Earley, Governor Snyder, former Flint mayor Dayne Walling, former Flint EM Jerry Ambrose, and others were named as defendants. Meanwhile, Earley has been earning $221,000 annually since he was appointed to be Emergency Manager for Detroit Public Schools in January, 2015. He also earned $110,000 per year in his contract with Saginaw and $180,000 as Flint’s emergency manager.
Given his pivotal role in prematurely pulling the plug by terminating the contract with Detroit, it is unconscionable that Darnell Earley has not been suspended without pay for the ramifications of his actions. Thus far, the Michigan State Democratic Party has called for Earley to be fired from his post in October 2015, citing his tenure in Flint and that city’s water crisis; and in December 2015-16, a series of organized teacher sickouts (which Earley condemned as ‘misguided’) took place in the school system.
Much to his credit, two years ago when the Saginaw City Council was discussing steps to keep the cash strapped city fiscally solvent, councilman Michael Balls attempted to interject a modicum of morality back into politics by calling for the rescinding of Earley’s contractual addendum to the city, which allows Earley lifetime health benefits & insurance, noting: “That’s a travesty to the city of Saginaw that we give somebody lifetime insurance for six years of employment.” With this latest display of malfeasance, the Saginaw City Council would be well-advised to revisit the issue.
The reality is that given the heightened scope of their responsibilities, Earley and all public servants and officials should be held to a higher standard of morality & responsibility than the average citizen; and therefore, given what has transpired, Darnell Earley should not be allowed to continue to profit from neither his past nor present roles when he has so blatantly abnegated his responsibilities on numerous occasions.
Given that a Federal lawsuit has been filed by the ACLU involving fraudulent data presented to the EPA, Earley does not have governmental immunity from criminal charges, so he can be successfully prosecuted in a technical sense, if it is proven he broke the law.
And the societal & monetary cost to both the state & the municipalities Earley has polluted – even at these early stages of the scandal – is incalculable..