The lead poisoning crisis that swept Flint was, for a time, expected to fell Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan. But the start of criminal trials of those deemed responsible for the disaster has stirred outrage in Flint at the prospect that the governor will pay no price for what happened on his watch.
Neither Snyder, nor any of his closest aides, are among the 15 people identified by Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette as being criminally responsible for allowing lead to leech into Flint’s drinking water in April 2014 and failing to deal with its deadly consequences.
Wednesday will be four years since Flint’s water switched to the Flint river, without lead corrosion controls, prompting the public health crisis.
“No one is above the law, not on my watch,” Schuette, who is running to replace term-limited Snyder this year, has vowed. But no crime has been been established against the governor, Schuette stressed.
As it stands, Snyder will be able to round off his eight-year tenure in January and return to the private sector, where he forged a sizable personal fortune via venture capital and technology before he ran for office. The technocratic Republican, whose Twitter handle is @onetoughnerd, would exit with little worse than some gloomy approval ratings.
“I don’t think the governor is going to get what he deserves,” said Gina Luster, an activist with Flint Rising. Laura MacIntyre, a sociologist at University of Michigan-Flint, is more descriptive: “He deserves to be tarred and feathered.”
At the apex of the crisis, in 2015 and 2016, it appeared that Snyder would, at least politically, be toppled by the outrage. He faced a humbling congressional hearing in March 2016 where, sipping a bottle of water held with trembling hands, he told lawmakers “I kick myself every day” over what happened in Flint. “Career bureaucrats” in his administration had deceived him. “I get so mad, I should’ve never believed them,” Snyder said.
The governor was jeered by Flint activists and residents, some wearing “Flint Lives Matter” T-shirts, and got little respite from his interlocutors. “I’ve had enough of your false contrition and apologies,” said congressman Matt Cartwright. “You sit there dripping with guilt.” As he was shielded out of the hearing by his security detail, Snyder’s political end seemed nigh.
It wasn’t to be. “You don’t roll up in a ball, you don’t walk away,” Snyder said, explaining his unwillingness to resign.
Efforts to gather signatures from Michiganders to remove Snyder withered. A Republican-dominated legislature wasn’t going to push the issue even though Snyder, who allowed the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare, vetoed a bill that allowed guns in schools and halted an anti-abortion driving license plate that read “Choose life”, is moderate within a staunchly rightwing Michigan GOP.
The criminal legal action, now starting to hit the courts, has so far focused on the sort of “career bureaucrats” Snyder blamed for the Flint crisis, rather than their ultimate boss.
“They started with the low hanging fruit and we weren’t happy, we thought ‘really?’” Karen Weaver, Flint’s mayor, told the Guardian. “People are waiting to see if the governor will be involved and, if the evidence points that way, he should be involved.
“We want everyone to be held accountable. What happened was inexcusable. People ask how I can work with the governor. Well, he’s in office. He has power. He has resources we need.”
Schuette would not comment when contacted but sources at the special counsel set up to handle the prosecutions insist there is no motivation to shield Snyder. “We’ve looked, we’ve combed through every document we could find, talked to every witness,” said one of the investigators. “We’re not sitting on evidence. It’s just that the evidence doesn’t point to any specific charge.”
The Flint crisis unfolded when the city, under the control of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager, switched the drinking water source from Lake Huron to the Flint river.
Corrosion control chemicals were not applied to the water system, allowing lead from pipes, joints and fixtures to seep into the water supply. Residents began to complain of discolored liquid tumbling from taps; children’s blood lead levels began to spike.
Lead exposure is linked to significant developmental and behavioral problems in children. The Flint contamination is also blamed for an outbreak of legionnaires’ disease, which caused 12 people to die in the area in 2014 and 2015.
It is these deaths that provoked the most eye-catching of Schuette’s charges, of involuntary manslaughter, leveled against Nick Lyon, director of the Michigan’s department of health and human service. Lyon, a member of Snyder’s cabinet, is the most senior official to be charged, followed by Dr Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive. Wells has been charged with misconduct in office for allegedly threatening to withhold funding for a project after researchers started looking into the legionnaires’ outbreak.
Lyon’s attorneys have denied that he is guilty of the charges, while Wells’ legal team has said it is reviewing the charges.
Snyder has not dismissed either employee.
“Being charged with a crime is not the same as being convicted of one,” said Snyder’s spokeswoman. She added that Snyder “promised residents in January 2016 that because this happened on his watch, he would fix it, and that’s exactly what he has done.”
Lyon, according to the charging document, “exhibited gross negligence” by failing to alert the public about the legionnaires’ outbreak, leading to the death of at least one person. “Everyone has to die of something,” Lyon told staff, the document alleges.
Four other state officials – Stephen Busch, Mike Prysby, Mike Glasgow and Adam Rosenthal – are charged in separate proceedings with tampering with lead test results and instructing residents to “pre-flush” taps ahead of tests – a manipulation that is widespread across the US.
Glasgow, who has taken a plea deal in return for giving evidence, has testified in pre-trial proceedings that Prysby and Busch wanted to remove test results taken from the home of LeeAnne Walters, a Flint resident, after they found 104 parts of lead per billion in her water. The federal actionable limit is 15 parts per billion.
Prysby and Busch pleaded not guilty to charges at an earlier pre-trial hearing. Rosenthal agreed to a plea deal late last year to plead no contest to a misdemeanor charge.
Snyder declared a state of emergency for Flint in January 2016, more than 15 months after his advisers called the quality of the Flint river “downright scary” and urging reconnection to the previous water source, according to emails released under freedom of information laws. A surge in legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County, where Flint is located, was reported to Snyder’s staff as early as March 2015.
The apparent sluggishness to respond to the crisis provoked an outcry but doesn’t provide quite enough ammunition for prosecution, according to legal scholars.
“To prove criminal liability is very hard in Michigan,” said David Moran, professor of law at the University of Michigan. “It’s not enough for someone to be terrible or lazy in their job. You need to be grossly negligent, to do something while knowing it would cause people to die.
“It would be extraordinary for the governor to be so aware of what is in Flint’s water that he would know the imminent health risk. It’s hard to prove what the higher ups knew.”
This situation raises the possibility that the trials will deepen the disillusion felt by Flint residents, rather than provide catharsis if punishment is finally meted out. Trust in basic governance has eroded to the point that many residents still rely on bottled water, despite state officials repeatedly declaring Flint’s water is now safe.
“People have been lied to so much here,” said Arthur Woodson, a Flint resident and activist. “We just feel that elected officials are never held accountable.”