Official hopes charges in Flint water case help return trust
Posted June 15
FLINT, Mich. — In a battered city where many still refuse to bathe in tap water, much less drink it, the prosecution of officials accused of letting Flint's public supply become contaminated with toxic lead and failing to warn of deadly bacteria represents a tentative step toward restoring trust in government.
Still, the path ahead is long.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette's announcement of new charges Wednesday against current and former state and local officials, including an involuntary manslaughter count against the state health director and four others, was greeted cautiously in Flint. Hopes have been dashed many times in the three years since the fateful switch from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in a bid to save money. Staffers didn't treat the river water to prevent corrosion, enabling lead to leach from aging service lines and household fixtures.
Enthusiasm that those believed responsible may be punished is tempered by the fallout: 12 people died from Legionnaires' disease, which experts believe was linked to tainted water; thousands of children may be afflicted with lead poisoning for years; an estimated 20,000 corroded lead service lines await replacement at a cost of more than $100 million; numerous lawsuits remain unresolved.
"I don't know if you're happy. It's mixed," Mayor Karen Weaver said. "This is terrible what's happened in the city of Flint. But we wanted some accountability. ... We're happy that justice is taking place."
A sore point for some is that Gov. Rick Snyder, who has apologized for the state's role in the crisis, has not been charged and remains in office. Schuette, a fellow Republican who is expected to run for governor next year as Snyder's term expires, said there was insufficient evidence.
But he said the investigation will continue, even as the emphasis shifts to prosecuting those accused. A report issued by the attorney general's investigative team noted that some of Snyder's top aides had raised concerns about the Flint water situation as much as a year before Oct. 1, 2015, when the governor says he learned of the lead contamination.
"Gov. Snyder needs to resign immediately and the people must know what he knew and when he knew it," said Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising, a coalition of community groups in the majority-black and impoverished city of about 100,000 residents. "Gov. Snyder must not be immune from accountability."
Snyder has said previously he wouldn't step down. He issued a statement Wednesday praising two officials who were charged: Michigan Health and Human Services Department Director Nick Lyon and the state's chief medical officer, Dr. Eden Wells. Both will remain on the job, the governor said. They were arraigned Thursday in Genesee County District Court.
Schuette's office has levied 51 charges against 15 present and former officials, while suing two water engineering firms accused of professional negligence in failing to help prevent the crisis.
Among those charged with involuntary manslaughter were Lyon; Darnell Earley, who was Flint's emergency manager when the city used the river; Howard Croft, who ran Flint's public works department; and two state environmental regulators, Liane Shekter Smith and Stephen Busch. Shekter Smith was fired last year and Busch is on paid leave.
Wells was charged with obstruction of justice and lying to an investigator. Lyon also was charged with misconduct in office.
Attorneys for the defendants said the charges were baseless.
Municipal officials have been charged elsewhere with violating federal clean-water law through deliberate acts such as falsifying test results or tampering with monitoring equipment, said Steve Solow, former chief of the U.S. Department of Justice's environmental crimes section. But in Flint, prosecutors are basing the involuntary manslaughter charges on actions not taken. They're attempting to link alleged failure to do jobs properly with the death of a Legionnaires' disease victim.
"You're labeling people as killers," said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University criminal law professor. "You'll have to show that it wasn't just doing a bad job, but doing a really bad job that is so far outside the norm that a jury can say this is reckless. It is not an easy standard to meet for the prosecutor."
Noah Hall, a Wayne State professor on temporary assignment with Schuette's team, described the severe charges as rare for an environmental case but said they were justified by the "scale and magnitude of what happened in Flint ... the callous disregard for upholding legal duties."
Schuette acknowledged the "significant gravity and weight" of the manslaughter count, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, and said some critics believed he was being unduly harsh. But the focus should be on "families of Flint that are still suffering as a result of government failure" and the need to restore citizens' shattered confidence in public agencies, he said.
"This loss of trust is an ugly and enduring stain that will take years to eradicate," his report said.
Among those still to be convinced is construction worker Johnathon Miller, 33, who won't drink Flint's tap water and uses it only to wash dishes after running it through a faucet filter. "I don't even give it to my dog," he said.
"It's actually very devastating that you have to monitor something as natural as water," Miller added. "We have to be basically walking on eggshells to utilize something that's a basic necessity of life."
Flesher reported from Traverse City, Michigan.
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