Residents of Flint, Michigan, are running out of reasons to trust that officials will ever bring them any sort of justice.
They had hoped Attorney General Dana Nessel would get tough on the state officials behind the city’s lead-tainted water crisis. But on Thursday, Nessel announced the attorneys leading the investigation had dropped criminal charges against all eight officials involved and would have to start the investigation over entirely — after $30 million spent on it and years of investigative work.
The prosecutors said they had “grave concerns” with the way the investigation was carried out by the prior state administration, but they didn’t fully elaborate.
And that’s just the most recent frustration. Flint has watched as an investigation meant to offer closure dragged on for years.
Nick Lyon, the state’s former Health and Human Services director and the highest-ranking official to be charged, was facing a charge of involuntary manslaughter over a legionnaires’ outbreak that killed at least 12 people. Eden Wells, the state’s former chief medical executive, was charged with misconduct in office.
It’s unclear if they and other officials will ever face charges again. Many residents had hoped in particular that former Gov. Rick Snyder would be held responsible, but he never faced charges at all.
Flint is a majority black city where 41% of the population lives below the poverty line. “To have faith in someone, for a Flint resident, is taboo,” Catrina Tillman, a spokesperson for the city’s First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, told VICE News. She said the citizens now feel betrayed not just by the initial water crisis but also by the lack of accountability.
Seven of the original 15 defendants reached plea deals with Flood and avoided jail time. Fadwa Hammoud, the new special prosecutor, dismissed former special prosecutor Todd Flood in April.
Four years later, no closure
In 2014, Michigan appointed the emergency managers that switched the city’s water supply to save money. The state-appointed special prosecutors then overruled Flint’s city council when it tried to bring the water back to its original source. But the water supply wasn’t properly treated, corroded the pipes, and people almost immediately became sick from elevated lead levels and rashes.
By 2015, evidence had appeared of a spike in legionnaires’ disease, a severe lung infection that can be deadly. But in July of that year, a state official had said “anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.”
Six months later, in January 2016, Gov. Snyder finally declared a state of emergency and acknowledged that children living in the majority-black town had been poisoned. He urged all Flint children younger than 6 to receive blood-lead level testing.
“To have faith in someone, for a Flint resident, is taboo.”
The federal Environmental Protection Agency had repeatedly told the state about the problems with its water, but Michigan’s officials ignored the warnings. When prosecutors finally opened up a criminal probe into the officials accused of being responsible, they allegedly overlooked information and persons of interest, according to the new prosecutors handling the case.
That’s one reason why Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver, said in a statement Thursday that she welcomes a new probe. She said “millions of documents and a lot of devices” should have been turned over to prosecutors.
The attorneys could reinstate charges at any time and add new defendants — like Snyder. But it’s not clear how quickly that will happen, if ever. Prosecutors aren’t speaking to the community directly until a “community conversation” in Flint on June 28. Years could pass before the city sees justice.
"I want to remind the people of Flint that justice delayed is not always justice denied and a fearless and dedicated team of career prosecutors and investigators are hard at work to ensure those who harmed you are held accountable," Nessel said in a statement.
Not all the officials involved in the investigations agree with her. Both former Attorney General Bill Schuette and former special prosecutor, Todd Flood, who are no longer involved, deny there was any reason to restart the investigation. But Nessel said she trusts the prosecutors who say it’s necessary for a complete and thorough investigation.
“We don’t even know what the impacts are yet, it’s going to take years to study the mental health and cognitive impacts, to assess the physical ailments that may come from this crisis,” said LaTricea Adams, president of Black Millennials for Flint, a grassroots environmental justice group.
While Flint’s lead levels have improved significantly and the city has replaced old pipes, nearly five years after the crisis began, the city’s residents still don’t trust they have clean drinking water coming out of their taps. Some toddlers in town have never been able to drink fresh water at their own homes, according to Tillman, the spokesperson for a local church.
“It feels like a slap in the face,” Tillman said.
Cover image: Flint resident Freddie Fisher shouts out "No justice, no peace!" as she joins more than 50 Flint residents who rally on the five-year anniversary of the Flint water crisis at the Capitol Building on Thursday, April 25, 2019, in Lansing, Mich. (Jake May/MLive.com/The Flint Journal via AP)