Flint water investigator calls for independent oversight of Michigan DEQ
It’s been more than four years since the city of Flint switched its water source to the Flint River. That decision, along with the lack of adequate corrosion control, would contaminate the city’s water supply with dangerously high levels of lead.
In January 2016, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette appointed a special counsel to investigate if actions taken by state and local officials had violated the law. That investigation resulted in criminal charges being brought against 15 former and current state and city officials in the state of Michigan.
Now that former Governor Rick Snyder’s administration has come to an end, State Attorney General Dana Nessel will be picking up where Schuette left off.
Noah Hall is an environmental law expert at Wayne State University, and he served as Special Assistant Attorney General to Schuette during the Flint investigation.
Hall says that he’s confident about the charges brought against the 15 state and city officials so far. The water switch was not an accident or a case of negligence, said Hall.
"Instead, what happened in Flint was the direct, predictable, intended result of unconscionable actions by state officials to disregard the law, disregard physical evidence of harm to individuals, and then lie and cover up what they did,” Hall explained.
But Hall said that the officials who have been charged appear to have been responsible for carrying out orders given from higher levels of government. In other words, he said many of the people who actually made the decisions that led to the crisis have yet to be held responsible.
“The folks in Flint, I don’t think, have gotten the sense yet that the real decisionmakers, the people in power who benefited from the poisoning of Flint, have been held accountable," Hall said.
Hall said that the wrongdoing that led to the water crisis occurred in all aspects of state government. He says in order to prevent other environmental crises in coming years, it’s important to understand the root causes of Flint's crisis.
“What happened in Flint was the result of a systematic breakdown of our environmental laws, a failure of environmental protection in state government, and a loss of accountability to the public at all levels of government that we need to fix,” Hall explained.
What happened in Flint can happen anywhere, Hall said. In light of emerging public health concerns over PFAS contamination across the state, he said it’s clear that questions of water quality in Michigan aren’t going anywhere. Hall considers Flint to be a “canary in the coal mine” that illustrates the risk that every American community faces given what he calls the fundamental lack of environmental protections ensured by state and federal law.
In order to prevent — or at least to more quickly and efficiently address — future instances of environmental injustice in Michigan, Hall has three recommendations:
1) Enshrine a new fundamental right of citizens to safe drinking water, clean air, and a healthy environment within the state Constitution.
2) Ensure that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is an independent agency dedicated solely to environmental protection by creating an independent citizen commission to oversee its daily operations, rather than the governor’s office.
3) Create a new, independent environmental ombudsman who will hear citizen complaints regarding the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s failure to respond to their concerns, and who has the power to initiate investigations on behalf of affected communities.
Hall said that he’s not sure if the legal system is equipped to deliver the justice that the people of Flint deserve. But Hall said he and others involved in the investigation intend to create a full account of the decisions and circumstances that led to the Flint water crisis so that they can be “genuinely confident” that a comparable emergency won’t happen again.
Listen to Stateside’s full conversation with Noah Hall to hear his thoughts on former Attorney General Bill Schuette’s potential conflict of interest regarding the investigation, the possibility that former Governor Rick Snyder lied to Congress during his testimony, and new State Attorney General Dana Nessel’s announcement that she hopes to replace Special Prosecutor Todd Flood with Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.