In Flint, criminal and civil cases stemming from the city’s lead tainted drinking water crisis are converging this week. New criminal charges may be coming while many in Flint still question whether they will ever get justice.
Nearly seven years ago, government leaders here pushed the button that switched the city of Flint’s drinking water source from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River.
The intent was to save money. The result was a complete disaster.
Improperly treated river water damaged pipes, which then released lead and other contaminates into the city’s drinking water. Eighteen months later the water was switched back, but the damage was done.
Blood lead levels soared in young children. People were forced to use bottled water for drinking and washing clothes. The city was forced to rip out thousands of old pipes.
While testifying about the Flint water crisis before Congress in 2016, former Governor Rick Snyder acknowledged the mistakes.
“Local, state and federal officials, we all failed the families of Flint,” Snyder told a congressional committee.
Snyder was not among the 15 state and local government officials who faced criminal charges for their handling of the crisis. Half of them pled guilty to lesser charges in exchange for no jail time. And in 2019, Michigan’s new Attorney General dropped charges against the remaining defendants citing problems with the original investigation.
The investigation seemed over.
Until Tuesday, when the Associated Press reported that several former government officials, including former Governor Snyder, would be facing new charges. If that happens, legal experts say it would be a difficult case for prosecutors.
Peter Hammer teaches law at Wayne State University in Detroit. He says, despite possible difficulty getting convictions, it’s important to bring charges.
“Especially in an era where we are living where people are not being held accountable. This could be an important sort of statement about the significance of the rule of law and that not even the highest public official is the state is going to get off scot-free,” says Hammer.
An attorney for former governor Rick Snyder calls the reports of impending charges “a public relations smear campaign”, saying that if brought they would be “meritless.”
Since enduring 18 months of foul smelling, dirty tap water that made them sick, Flint residents have demanded justice and compensation.
A U.S. District Court judge is expected to decide in the coming days if she’ll give preliminary approval to a massive settlement agreement resolving most of the thousands of outstanding lawsuits.
Last year, the state of Michigan announced it struck a deal with attorneys representing Flint residents to pay $600 million into a settlement fund. A few months later, the city of Flint, a local hospital and an engineering firm agreed to chip in another $41 million.
Nearly 80% of that money would be set aside for plaintiffs who were young children or minors during the crisis. They are the ones most at risk for suffering long-term lead related health problems.
But a growing chorus of critics say it’s not enough.
A group of Flint civic and religious leaders gathered Monday outside the city’s water plant to express concern about settlement.
“We believe the proposed settlement as currently allocated is just as disrespectful as the injury caused by the water crisis tragedy itself,” says Pastor John McClane.
In addition to tens of thousands of Flint residents, there are the lawyers. Lots of them. More than 140 took part in a zoom hearing with the judge last month. This is part of the challenge facing judges: how to divide a large pool of money without leaving some feeling victimized again.
Flint’s mayor says it’s important his residents have “a belief in justice” and developments this week may help with that.