Whatever you do, stop calling the Flint water crisis a “failure at all levels of government.”
That’s the going line used by Congressional investigators, the Michigan governor, the Michigan Senate Majority Leader, and impassioned commentators around the country. And sure, this is one cliche that’s accurate. But the passive voice blurs the fact that real people made real choices that created a human-made disaster, endangering a city of nearly 100,000 people with lead poisoning, Legionnaires’ disease, and the accelerated corrosion of its drinking water system.
While lead and water lines captured the headlines, it’s Legionnaires’—a severe form of pneumonia caused by a waterborne bacteria that can be inhaled, for example, during showers—that proved fatal. In a 17-month period over 2014 and 2015, 90 people got sick and 12 died. The outbreak is believed to be connected to that infamous 2014 Flint water switch.
A special prosecutor appointed by the Michigan Attorney General has led an investigation that has criminally charged 15 people so far, with the most recent indictments delivered last week against two of the state’s highest-ranking health officials. Two civil lawsuits were also filed against corporations for professional negligence. Separate from the AG investigation, there was also a settlement in lawsuit where the state will pay $87 million to the city and replace at least 18,000 damaged water lines by 2020, among other requirements.
As each wave of indictments comes down, with one formerly anonymous bureaucrat after another put in the spotlight’s glare, I’ve noticed how many observers seem to assume that if they have never heard of the officials who are charged, then they’re probably scapegoats. Unless the investigation reaches the governor’s office, the whole thing must be a sham.
Not so, I say. After more than 18 months of reporting about what went wrong in Flint, I understand the skepticism. But these people, and these companies, appear to bear a lot of responsibility. The fact that few people nationwide recognize their names should not be mistaken for a lack of power and influence. While Governor Rick Snyder has absorbed the bulk of the public’s blame, “Michigan’s most comprehensive criminal investigation in modern history” is, appropriately, being built from the ground up.
Director, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services
Charges: Involuntary manslaughter (15-year felony), misconduct in office (5-year felony)
As part of the governor’s cabinet, Lyon is the highest-ranking official to be chargedso far. He’s accused of failing to notify the public about an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that’s believed to be tied to the 2014 water switch. By “taking steps to suppress information illustrating obvious and apparent harms,” according to charging documents, Lyon allegedly allowed a public health crisis to continue.
Dr. Eden Wells
Chief Medical Executive, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services
Charges: Obstruction of justice (5-year felony), lying to a peace office (2-year misdemeanor)
Wells allegedly provided false testimony about data she knew about the Legionnaires’ outbreak to an investigating officer, and she threatened to withhold funding from the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership unless the group ended its investigation into the outbreak’s cause. Governor Rick Snyder issued a statement defending both Wells and Lyon, saying that they have been “instrumental in Flint’s recovery. They have my full faith and confidence, and will remain on duty at D.H.H.S.”
Director, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s drinking water division
Charges: Involuntary manslaughter (15-year felony), misconduct in office (5-year felony),willful neglect of duty (1-year misdemeanor)
Under her leadership, the MDEQ drinking water division is alleged to have dismissed information about rising lead levels and the Legionnaires’ spike. Not only is she accused of failing “to take corrective action or notify public health officials,” according to the investigative team, “but, in fact took steps to mislead and conceal evidence from health officials in phone calls revealed by the investigation.” Shekter-Smith is, to date, the only person fired by the state because of the water crisis. Four months before her termination, she received a $2,652 performance bonus.