In April 2014 the city of Flint, Mich., made the fatal decision to switch its water supply from Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the heavily contaminated Flint River. Flint residents have waited almost seven years for the responsible parties — in particular former Governor Rick Snyder — to face criminal charges.
That wait has come to an end. However, Flint residents are angry and disappointed over the actual charges brought by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel against Snyder: just two misdemeanor counts of willful neglect of duty. Lower-ranking current and former officials face heavier felony charges, including perjury, misconduct in office and involuntary manslaughter. Nine individuals have been charged.
“Snyder got a slap on the wrist, and Flint got a slap in the face,” said former Flint Mayor Karen Weaver. “Not only did people lose their lives through Legionnaires’ [disease], we know women who had stillbirths and miscarriages.”
As Flint Water Crisis Community Activist Melissa Mays put it, “The fact that here if you’re a rich white man, then it’s not actually a crime to poison Black and Brown bodies and that you can get away with it.” (NBC 25, Jan. 14)
Complaints from Flint water consumers began soon after the city disconnected from DWSD. They included brown-colored, foul-smelling and foul-tasting water; skin rashes; and children showing signs of lead poisoning. High lead levels were found in the water due to the cost-cutting decision not to add anticorrosive chemicals to the river water.
Yet Gov. Snyder did not “declare a state of emergency and/or disaster when the governor had notice of a threat of a disaster and/or emergency in the city of Flint,” according to the indictment, waiting until January 2016 to issue the declaration. He also failed to “inquire into the performance, condition and administration of the public offices and officers that he appointed and was required to supervise.” Snyder faces a maximum of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
The involuntary manslaughter charges stem from the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that sickened over 90 people and killed 12.
The racist “dictator law” and Flint’s water poisoning
Beginning in 1990, the Michigan legislature passed a series of bills allowing the governor to impose an “emergency financial manager” — renamed “emergency manager” with broader powers in 2011 — over a city, county or school district deemed to be in financial distress. The successive bills primarily targeted Black-majority cities including Detroit, Flint and Benton Harbor. It gave the EM broad dictatorial powers to break union contracts, sell or privatize community assets and overrule elected city councils, mayors and school boards.
There was one stipulation: Principal and interest payments to the banks and bondholders must be paid.
Grassroots activists launched a massive grassroots petition drive, putting the hated Public Act 4 on the ballot in 2012. Voters shot down what had been nicknamed “the dictator law.” But rather than respect the democratic will of the people, Michigan’s legislators passed a new EM bill, PA 436, with minor variations.
The decision to switch Flint’s water supply was made by EM Darnell Earley and continued by his successor, Gerald Ambrose. Both face felony charges with up to five years imprisonment. But the governor who appointed and retained them — and later assigned Earley to oversee Detroit Public Schools, where lead poisoning has also been a problem — is only charged with misdemeanors!
In contrast, the former mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, is serving a 28-year sentence stemming from a corruption scandal that did not sicken or kill anyone. Snyder is white and Kilpatrick is Black. This is blatant racism, the same racism behind the EM law that, at the time of the Flint water crisis, had 50% of Michigan’s Black residents under emergency management compared to 2% of white Michiganians.
Charges from the investigation by previous Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette did not even include Snyder. After Nessel — a Democrat and out lesbian elected along with Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2018 — took over, she scrapped Schuette’s investigation and started over. While the charging of Snyder this time around is long overdue; as the highest-ranking official tied to Flint’s suffering, he should actually be facing the most serious charges.
Other responsible parties were not charged at all, including the governor-appointed leadership of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. From April 2014 until October 2015, MDEQ insisted Flint water was safe to drink.
Corporate criminals off the hook
There are other responsible parties besides elected and appointed officials in the tragedy that befell Flint. While their decisions sent toxic water into the homes of the city’s families, the question remains: Why was the Flint River so badly contaminated?
For over a century, corporations dumped industrial waste into the river — in particular, one corporation has been most closely associated with Flint: General Motors. The city has been contaminated with arsenic, chromium, mercury, lead, solvents and other toxins that will take centuries to dissolve. While Flint’s children were being sickened, GM was able to quietly shift its water supplier to a nearby suburb, when the company realized that engine parts were being corroded.
This same company, having closed 9 out of 10 plants that once dominated the city’s landscape, has eroded Flint’s tax base — driving the cost-cutting measures that ultimately proved deadly. At the time of the water crisis, Flint had the highest poverty rate of any Michigan city.
Another culprit is the huge multinational Veolia/Transdev, which has been involved in privatizing water and transportation departments since the mid-19th century. This company, a notorious union buster, has been blamed for undermining water quality in municipalities all over the world.
In 2015 Flint’s emergency manager authorized a $40,000 study of Flint’s water quality issues to be conducted by Veolia. The company’s study failed to mention the risk of lead poisoning and Legionnaires’ and did not recommend switching to another water source, such as DWSD. A state lawsuit against Veolia is still unresolved, even after other parties sued agreed to a $600 million settlement to assist Flint in making its water infrastructure safe.
Real justice will mean jail for all of the politicians and corporate heads responsible for poisoning an impoverished Black-majority city. Real justice means full reparations for the people of Flint.
See extensive coverage of the Flint Water Crisis from 2015-2016 @ workers.org.