Four more Flint officials face felony "conspiracy" charges over water crisis

December 20, 2016, 12:08pm

With the state of emergency in Flint, Michigan, approaching the one-year mark, the number of those believed culpable for the public health disaster continues to grow. On Tuesday, the office of Michigan’s attorney general, which has been handling the investigation into the city’s ongoing toxic-water crisis, announced criminal charges against four new individuals: Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, two former emergency managers appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder; Daugherty Johnson, the former utilities administrator for Flint; and Howard Croft, the former public works director.

All four are facing felony charges of “false pretenses and conspiracy to commit false pretenses.” Earley and Ambrose face an additional two charges of willful neglect of duty and misconduct while in office.

District Court Judge William Crawford II approved the charges, which allege the men knew the Flint Water Treatment Plant was unable to produce safe drinking water yet conspired to enter a contract “on false pretenses” that made Flint River the default source of drinking water for the city’s 100,000 residents.

Jeff Seipenko, special agent with the attorney general’s office, told Judge Crawford that his investigation suggested Early and Ambrose ignored advice saying they should switch Flint’s water source back to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, the Detroit Free Press reported.

With the latest round of charges, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has now charged a total of 13 individuals for their responsibility in the lead-contaminated-water crisis. Eight current or former state employees and one City of Flint employee were previously charged with tampering of evidence or willful neglect of office. Two of the accused have cut deals with a special prosecutor.

It began in April 2014 when, in an effort to save money, the city of Flint switched water systems from Detroit to the Flint River. This was intended to be a temporary switch until the city could connect to Lake Huron’s Karegnondi Water Authority in 2016. Almost immediately after the switch, residents began complaining about the foul odor and cloudy appearance of the water, among other problems. The Flint River water was improperly treated, meaning its aging pipes leaked extremely high levels of lead, a neurotoxin, into the water supply.

Public attention to the crisis led to massive donations of bottled water as well as state and federal funding for water and filters. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said in an NPR interview last week that the tap water was still not safe to drink.

Exposure to lead is particularly harmful for children. According to the World Health Organization, lead can negatively affect children’s brain development and cause kidney, liver, reproductive, and central nervous system problems, all of which are believed to be irreversible. United Way, a nonprofit organization, estimated earlier this year that anywhere between 6,000 and 12,000 children in Flint had been exposed to dangerous levels of lead and could experience health problems in the future.

A class action suit filed on behalf of residents in November 2015 alleged: “For more than 18 months, state and local government officials ignored irrefutable evidence that the water pumped from the Flint River exposed [residents] to extreme toxicity…The deliberately false denials about the safety of the Flint River water was as deadly as it was arrogant.”

The residents of Flint, it turns out, aren’t the only ones who have been exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water. A new investigation by Reuters found that almost 3,000 locations across the United States had lead poisoning rates “far higher” than those in Flint.