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Michigan Prosecutors Drop Criminal Charges Against Officials Involved in Flint Water Crisis

Politics
Demonstrators outside a Republican presidential debate in Detroit in 2016. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Michigan prosecutors dropped all criminal charges against government officials involved in the Flint water crisis Thursday, citing concerns about the investigation they had inherited from the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) appointed by former Attorney General Bill Schuette, CNN reported.


"We cannot provide the citizens of Flint the investigation they rightly deserve by continuing to build on a flawed foundation," Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy said in a statement. "Dismissing these cases allows us to move forward according to the non-negotiable requirements of a thorough, methodical and ethical investigation."

The news comes a little more than three years after the first criminal charges were filed and a little more than five years since an emergency manager switched Flint's water supply from the Detroit water system to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure. The highly corrosive water leached lead from the pipes, contaminating the drinking water with unsafe levels of the heavy metal. The new water was also linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that killed at least 12, The New York Times reported.

For Flint residents, the news of the dropped charges was the latest in a long line of betrayals from government officials. Flint activist Melissa Mays, who founded the advocacy group Water You Fighting For, wrote in a Facebook post that she first heard the news of the dropped charges from a New York Times reporter.

"This is not justice," Mays told The New York Times. "It just seems like a political ploy. The only thing it tells me is our lives don't matter."

But the prosecutors, who took over the case after the Michigan attorney general's office passed from Republican to Democratic control earlier this year, argued in their statement that there had been major problems with the original investigation:

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 the OSC, particularly regarding the pursuit of evidence. After a complete evaluation, our concerns were validated. Contrary to accepted standards of criminal investigation and prosecution, all the available evidence was not pursued. Instead, the OSC entered into agreements that gave private law firms — representing Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Treasury, and the Executive Office of former Governor Rick Snyder — a role in deciding what information would be turned over to law enforcement.

Hammoud and Worthy said they had already uncovered new information and pinpointed additional people who might be charged. They also said dropping the charges did not prevent them from filing new charges against the original defendants. The pair said they would not answer media inquiries until they spoke directly to Flint residents at a community meeting scheduled for June 28.

Democratic Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel supported the prosecutors' decision.

"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," she said in a statement.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver also expressed tentative support for the decision.

"It is frustrating, but I'd rather be frustrated at this end and know that they're going to do a deep dive into what happened," Weaver told The New York Times. "I think this way, they may have the evidence they need to be able to hold them accountable and throw away the key."

Schuette, meanwhile, took to Twitter to defend his team's investigation. He noted that the OSC had brought 59 charges against 15 people and won five convictions.

"We had an experienced, aggressive and hard-driving team. Everything we did was for the people of Flint," he wrote.

The news means that Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and former Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells will no longer face trial for charges including involuntary manslaughter after they allegedly failed to warn residents of the Legionnaires' outbreak in a timely manner, The Detroit News reported. Lyon was the highest-ranking official to be charged in the initial investigation. Charges against six other officials were also dropped Thursday. Seven of the original 15 charged had previously agreed to plea deals.

Chip Chamberlain, one of Lyon's attorneys, told The Detroit News that his client "feels fantastic and grateful and vindicated."

However, Lyon and the others could face new charges.

"If charges are dismissed, usually prosecutors have six months or so to refile charges and it won't affect the statute of limitations," Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor Peter Henning told The Detroit News.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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