Former prosecutor and journalist weigh in on the significance of Flint water crisis charges
Nine individuals were indicted January 14 on criminal charges related to the Flint water crisis, including former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. This case, overseen by State Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office, is one of several seeking justice for the people in Flint who’ve suffered loss of life and irreversible health damage because of tainted water flowing through their city’s system.
Noah Hall, a professor of law at Wayne State University, served as special assistant attorney general for the initial investigation of state officials regarding the water crisis. He said he felt the investigation he was part of had made promising progress in court, so when Nessel’s team announced they would shut down existing cases and start anew, he was frustrated and skeptical.
But now, he says, he knows he was wrong.
“It looks today like my skepticism was not justified and Attorney General Nessel came through on what she promised, which was, when she shut down our investigation and terminated us — myself included — she really was building back a better investigation that was going to do more work and go even further with developing charges. And it looks like that’s exactly what’s happened over the past two years,” Hall said.
Snyder faces two misdemeanor charges of willful neglect of duty, for which he has pleaded not guilty. But other former officials face more serious charges, including former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director Nick Lyon and the state’s former Chief Medical Officer Dr. Eden Wells, who have both been charged with nine felony counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Hall says these new charges likely draw on decisions the Snyder Administration made back in 2012 and 2013, which set in motion the changes in Flint’s water supply that led to use of the Flint River with a lack of corrosion control.
Some critics of the recent charges argue that government leaders and public servants, due to the nature of their jobs, should be permitted some benefit of the doubt, as they may have been using their best judgment to make decisions with the information that was available to them at the time. But Hall says that’s not what he thinks happened in the Flint water crisis, based on his knowledge from the initial investigation.
“This was not a simple case of government officials doing the best they could and making a mistake. Quite the opposite,” he said. “These were government officials who intended to advance an agenda, and in advancing that agenda, threatened and ultimately harmed human life.”
Anna Clark is a reporter for ProPublica who has covered the Flint water crisis for years as an independent journalist. She’s also the author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy. She says that when Nessel’s office threw out the prior investigation in order to start over, families she’d spoken with in Flint responded with an array of emotions. Some were ambivalent or angry. Others were hopeful.
“They’re very clear that whatever charges are filed, or whatever convictions are done, it doesn’t make everything right. I mean, the health consequences for the children especially, who were exposed to toxic water, are lifelong and incurable,” Clark said. “But people are very, very hungry for people to be held accountable for the actions that led to this crisis for themselves, their families, their children, their neighbors, the town that they’ve chosen as their home.”
She says she hopes these new charges will draw attention to the ongoing practical needs of people in Flint’s communities, as well as the replacement of water pipes in the community, a process that isn’t finished yet.
“They’ve replaced, as of late December, I think, close to 10,000 of the lead lines, which is great, but it’s not quite yet complete,” Clark said. “When people think about whether the Flint water crisis is over, that seems like square one — this infrastructure that caused so much harm to people that was worsened and damaged by the choices that decision-makers made with the water.”
But it’s not just about the infrastructure. Clark says that some of the families she’s spoken with, who are navigating ongoing health issues, are frustrated that the spotlight has moved away from Flint and feel that time passing doesn’t mean the water crisis is “over.”
“I think that lived consequences of this water crisis are something that — it’s incalculable. And it will be years before, I think, maybe we can fully process all of it, where we really see what the full stakes have been for folks,” Clark said.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.