Officials and residents in Flint, Michigan, offered a wide range of reactions after the state attorney general’s office announced Thursday that all charges in the ongoing Flint water crisis investigation will be dropped and the process will restart from scratch.
Prosecutors working for Attorney General Dana Nessel (D), who campaigned on justice for Flint residents during the 2018 midterms, dismissed this week all cases still pending against individuals charged with crimes relating to the lead water contamination crisis. That process has largely been the work of former Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican. Nessel’s office argues Schuette oversaw a deeply flawed investigation, one that needs to be completely redone.
Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy pledged a “full and complete investigation” on Thursday.
“Legitimate criminal prosecutions require complete investigations. Upon assuming responsibility of this case, our team of career prosecutors and investigators had immediate and grave concerns about the investigative approach and legal theories embraced by [Schuette’s office], particularly regarding the pursuit of evidence,” they said in a statement. “After a complete evaluation, our concerns were validated.”
Flint has been suffering since 2014, when the city’s water source became contaminated with lead. Residents quickly sickened and experienced rashes, followed by other dramatic health issues coupled with flu-like symptoms. Throughout that time, governmental officials are accused of doing little to contain or address the problem.
The water contamination is also believed to be the possible cause of an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the county that killed 12 people and impacted the health of at least 90 other people.
Thus far, fifteen state and local officials have been accused of crimes pertaining to the water crisis, including involuntary manslaughter. At least eight have been awaiting trial, while seven have taken plea deals. Those awaiting trial include former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) director Nick Lyon, who prosecutors say failed to alert the public about the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Flint.
Some of these individuals may still be re-charged under the new investigation, but it was unclear as of Friday whether that was in any way a guarantee. Worthy and Hammoud said they would “speak directly to the people of Flint” in a community forum on June 28 addressing the news.
Some residents reacted with anger to the announcement, arguing that restarting the process from the beginning will further delay justice. At least one Flint resident told the New York Times that the move was a “political ploy” only serving to once again deny the city some measure of accountability from officials.
State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D), who represents Flint, expressed similar emotions. “Words cannot express how disappointed I am that justice continues to be delayed and denied to the people of my city,” he said in a statement.
Others were more measured. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver (D) praised the “seriousness and dogged determination” of Nessel’s team and said she was optimistic about the prospect of justice going forward.
Nessel’s office notably secured search warrants several weeks ago for state-issued items from former Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and other high-level government employees. Some Flint residents have said they are heartened by that and hope that Snyder and other officials will ultimately face justice in the new probe.
Flint’s water crisis and the subsequent fallout have dragged on for five years, with many residents still arguing that they do not trust their water and refuse to drink or bathe in it, even though state officials argue it is now safe.
And the city’s plight has now caught the eye of at least one 2020 Democratic presidential contender, Julián Castro of Texas, who visited Flint last weekend and unveiled a new plan targeting lead poisoning.
Castro’s plan would incorporate both executive and congressional action, in addition to partnering with state and local authorities, as well as private entities. While the candidate is currently polling around 1% nationally, in shining a spotlight on Flint he may have ensured that other candidates might later do the same.
“Lead poisoning is linked to irreversible health problems and developmental challenges that follow a child into adulthood,” Castro’s plan states. It goes on to stress that “every child in every neighborhood should have the gift of their full abilities.”