‘About Damn Time’: Cautious Optimism as Imminent Charges Reported for Michigan Ex-Officials Over Flint Water Crisis

Clean water and human rights advocates responded with cautious optimism to a Tuesday Associated Press report claiming that Michigan’s attorney general is preparing to indict former Gov. Rick Snyder and other ex-officials in connection with the deadly poisoning of Flint’s drinking water. 

The AP report, which cites “two people with knowledge of the planned prosecution,” states that the office of Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) has informed lawyers for Synder (R), former state health director Nick Lyon, and others allegedly responsible for the ongoing lead contamination crisis in the largely impoverished, predominantly Black city of 101,000 residents that their clients can expect to be summoned to court soon. 

“The very fact that people are being held accountable is an amazing feat. But when people’s lives have been lost and children have been severely hurt, it doesn’t seem like enough.”
—LeeAnne Walters,
Activist and Flint mother

The precise nature of the charges against the former officials was not disclosed. Courtney Covington Watkins, a spokesperson for Nessel’s office, told the AP that investigators are “working diligently” and “will share more as soon as we’re in a position to do so.”

In Michigan and across the nation, progressive response to the impending indictments was overwhelmingly upbeat; however, many observers said there was still a long way to go until justice is achieved. 

LeeAnne Walters, a local mother of four who in 2018 was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her role in exposing the crisis, said she would like to know more about the charges against the former officials. 

“The very fact that people are being held accountable is an amazing feat,” Walters told the AP. “But when people’s lives have been lost and children have been severely hurt, it doesn’t seem like enough.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) tweeted that “the justice train is coming through.” 

Lonnie Scott, executive director of the advocacy group Progress Michigan, said in a statement: “It’s about damn time. Justice for the people of Flint is long overdue.” 

Snyder was governor when the unelected emergency managers he appointed to run the city made the cost-cutting decision to switch Flint’s water supply to the Flint River, whose waters were highly corrosive and leaked lead from aging pipes into thousands of homes. 

There were early signs of trouble in August 2014, when residents were told to boil their tap water, which was found to contain unsafe levels of fecal coliform bacteria. 

Months later, residents began complaining that their tap water smelled and tasted foul, and that many children were becoming sick after drinking it. However, officials told them that everything was fine and that the water was safe to drink.

It later emerged that Veolia, the private company hired to deal with the bacterial contamination, knew about the lead contamination as early as February 2015, but balked at informing government officials.

In 2016, Snyder and Lyon publicly disclosed the poisoning, although subsequent investigation has shown that they knew about the problem much earlier than that. 

An outbreak of Legionaires’ disease in 2014 and 2015 linked to the water crisis officially killed a dozen people, although an investigation found that the actual death toll may have been as much as 10 times higher. 

In 2017, Lyon and four other officials were charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the Legionnaires’ outbreak. However, in 2019 Nessel’s office dropped the charges, while promising a new investigation. 

Meanwhile, the people of Flint—already one of the most economically depressed cities in the nation—continued to suffer from exposure to the neurotoxin. Their pain was often ignored or dismissed.

In a stunning display of gaslighting during a May 2016 visit decried by filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore as “too little, too late,” then-President Barack Obama affected a cough, asked for water, and then gingerly sipped from a glass of filtered Flint water while lecturing his audience about how everyone over a certain age “got some lead in your system when you were growing up.” 

Children’s brains are especially susceptible to damage from lead. As many as 26,000 Flint children have been poisoned, including 9,000 under the age of 6. While lead poisoning can be avoided, it cannot be reversed, and thousands of Flint children suffer from health and behavioral problems resulting from their exposure. 

The poisoning is also blamed for a host of other health problems endured by Flint residents, including lower fertility and higher fetal mortality rates. 

Last August—six years after the crisis began—Michigan officials announced a $600 million settlement following 18 months of negotiations that will fund public health and other needs related to the contamination. 

This post was originally published on Radio Free.