Licensed engineers are generally expected to demonstrate an uncompromising concern for public safety in engineering decisions, particularly those involving drinking water supply.

Engineers are often required to put their livelihoods on the line to uphold that principle, and an engineering license should provide the “moral muscle,” as one engineer has written, to do so. But a license by itself doesn’t guarantee moral bravery.

In Flint, Mich., two licensed state engineers are among the three individuals—the other is a city of Flint water treatment official—whom the state attorney general has charged with crimes related to alleged knowledge of over-the-limit drinking-water lead levels.

Facing possible legal action and damage to their reputations, the two state engineers may be pressured to limit their potential punishment by pleading guilty and possibly testifying against others. A trial, however, would provide a more thorough exploration of innocence or guilt to determine whether, in attempting to discredit testing that showed problems with Flint River water, they prolonged the use of that supply and exposure to the lead.

The state attorney general has charged the two state engineers, both employees of the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality, with misdemeanors and felonies that range from misconduct in office to violations of the state Safe Drinking Water Act.

The charges against them consist of failing to use optimal corrosion-control treatment at the Flint water treatment plant after the switch to the Flint River as the water source; manipulating the water samples collected to determine the lead level; and concealing or tampering with evidence of lead problems, including information provided by Miguel Del Toral, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientist involved with water regulations. Further, Del Toral warned state and federal officials of inconsistencies in assurances that the water was safe.

A Flint mother who was concerned about the water quality had pressed city and state officials for information.

In correspondence between the state agency and the EPA regional office, Del Toral’s question about corrosion control was relayed by another EPA employee to the two state engineers in a Feb. 26, 2015, email, which said: “Miguel was wondering if Flint is feeding phosphates. Flint must have Optimal Corrosion Control Treatment—is it Phosphates?”  

Email records show that, the next day, one of the two engineers replied that Flint “has an Optimized Corrosion Control Program” and “continues to meet all applicable plant tap standards and treatment technique requirements.” While the truth gradually emerged that, in fact, no program was being used;
however, it remains to be determined whether the error was intentional or accidental and whether the engineers are at fault.

Even so, the charges already have sent a message that duty to public safety and institutional loyalty are not mutually exclusive.