Flint looks for justice as ex-governor charged in water crisis

Former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and a top state health official have been charged regarding their roles in the deadly water crisis that gripped Flint, Michigan, for years starting in 2014.

Michigan’s former health director was charged Thursday with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of nine people who contracted Legionnaires’ disease during the Flint water crisis as prosecutors are revisiting how Flint’s water system was contaminated with lead during one of worst human-made environmental disasters in United States history.

Nick Lyon pleaded not guilty during an appearance in a Genesee County court. Moments later, his old boss, Mr. Snyder, also pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges of willful neglect of duty in Flint.

They were among several people summoned to court to face charges, the result of a renewed 19-month investigation launched by the attorney general’s office after Dana Nessel, a Democrat, was elected.

Families in Flint welcomed the news after learning on Tuesday that the former governor and others in his administration will be charged in a water crisis blamed with causing learning disabilities in scores of children and other medical problems among adults in the majority Black city about 60 miles northwest of Detroit.

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“I literally could have cried,” said Ariana Hawk. She noticed something wasn’t right with the family’s tap water when her son, Sincere Smith, was 2 years old. Sometimes the water they drank and used for cooking and bathing was discolored. More concerning was when it gushed out brown.

It wasn’t just her home, but all across the former manufacturing hub that for decades had turned out some of the best cars and trucks produced by U.S. automakers.

Residents had been complaining about the discolored discharge as early as 2014 after the financially strapped city – while under state oversight – switched from water pumped from Detroit to the Flint River to save money.

State and some city officials insisted the water was safe to use – until a group of doctors in September 2015 urged Flint to change its water source after finding high levels of lead in children’s blood.

The water, it turned out, had not been treated to reduce corrosion – causing the toxic metal to leach from old pipes and spoil the distribution system used by nearly 100,000 residents. The water also was blamed for a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Flint area, where authorities counted at least 90 cases, including 12 deaths. Some experts found there was not enough chlorine in Flint’s water-treatment system to control legionella bacteria, which can trigger a severe form of pneumonia when spread through misting and cooling systems.

Lead can damage the brain and nervous system and cause learning and behavior problems. The crisis was highlighted as an example of environmental injustice and racism.

In the Hawk household, rashes had started to spread over Sincere’s body. The boy’s pediatrician pointed to the city’s water as the cause.

Sincere would become the face of the Flint water crisis when a photo of him was selected in 2016 for the cover of Time magazine.

Flint has since returned to water from Detroit’s system and has replaced more than 9,700 lead service lines, but scars remain – some visible, others psychological.

For Sincere, now 7, and his siblings, water from taps can elicit fear similar to the boogeyman or dark closets.

While visiting their grandmother’s home in Florida, Sincere was hesitant about the water, Ms. Hawk told The Associated Press.

“I told him ‘It’s not Flint. Y’all can drink it,’” Ms. Hawk said. “But they’ve been normalized to drinking bottled water because they can’t drink our water. Flint kids are traumatized.”

The charges against Mr. Snyder carry up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine upon conviction. No governor or former governor in Michigan’s 184-year history had been charged with crimes related to their time in that office, according to the state archivist.

“We believe there is no evidence to support any criminal charges against Governor Snyder,” defense attorney Brian Lennon said Wednesday night, adding that prosecutors still hadn’t provided him with any details.

Mr. Snyder, a Republican, was governor from 2011 through 2018. The former computer executive pitched himself as a problem-solving “nerd” who eschewed partisan politics and favored online dashboards to show performance in government. Flint turned out to be the worst chapter of his two terms due to a series of catastrophic decisions that will affect residents for years.

The date of Mr. Snyder’s alleged crimes in Flint is listed as April 25, 2014, when a Snyder-appointed emergency manager, Darnell Early, who was running the struggling, majority Black city carried out a money-saving decision to use the Flint River for water while a pipeline from Lake Huron was under construction.

Prosecutors also charged Mr. Earley with two felony counts of misconduct in office Thursday. He pleaded not guilty.

“They poisoned the whole city,” Roy Fields Sr. said of officials elected and appointed to make sure residents were safe. “At first, we thought all we had to do was boil the water and be OK,” Mr. Fields said Wednesday. “We cooked with it, drank it, and when we heard about the problems with it, we stopped in 2014, but it was too late.”

He wants someone brought to justice.

“They talk about jail time,” Mr. Fields said. “But that does no good. Let them come back in here and work to help educate and do what they can to make this community whole. I was hostile. I had to forgive them in order to move forward.”

The news of charges “is a salve, but it isn’t the end of the story,” said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who helped call attention to childhood health risks from Flint’s water.

“Without justice, it’s impossible to heal the scars of the crisis,” Ms. Hanna-Attisha said Wednesday in a statement. “Healing wounds and restoring trust will take decades and long-term resources.”

Ms. Hawk is skeptical that charges will lead to accountability. Even if there are convictions, who will repair the emotional trauma?

“I don’t want to give up on the young people who don’t have a voice,” she said. “And Sincere, I want him to know that he did something good, that he was brave putting his story out there. I don’t want him to feel like a victim. I tell him now that when he gets older to say, ‘Yeah, I’m the little boy that was on Time magazine that opened the eyes to America to what was happening in the city of Flint.’”

Separately, the state, Flint, a hospital, and an engineering firm have agreed to a $641 million settlement with residents over the water crisis, with $600 million coming from Michigan. A judge said she hopes to decide by Jan. 21 whether to grant preliminary approval. Other lawsuits, including one against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are pending.


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