Former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has been charged with willful neglect of duty after an investigation of ruinous decisions that left the US city of Flint with lead-contaminated water and a regional outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.
The charges, revealed in an online court record on Wednesday are punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The charges are groundbreaking: No governor or former governor in Michigan’s 184-year history had been charged with crimes related to their time in that office, according to the state archivist.
“We believe there is no evidence to support any criminal charges against Governor Snyder,” defence lawyer Brian Lennon said on Wednesday night, adding that state prosecutors had still not provided him with any details.
Lennon said on Tuesday that a criminal case would be “outrageous”. Snyder and others were scheduled to appear in court on Thursday, followed by a news conference by Attorney General Dana Nessel and prosecutors.
Besides Snyder, a Republican who was governor from 2011 until 2018, charges are expected against other people, including former officials who served as his state health director and as a senior adviser.
The alleged offence date is April 25, 2014, when a Snyder-appointed emergency manager who was running the struggling, Black-majority city in the country’s Midwest, carried out a money-saving decision to use the Flint River for water while a regional pipeline from Lake Huron was under construction.
The corrosive water, however, was not treated properly and released lead from old plumbing into homes in one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in US history.
Despite desperate pleas from residents holding jugs of discoloured water, the Snyder administration took no significant action until a doctor reported elevated lead levels in children about 18 months later.
“I’m sorry and I will fix it,” Snyder promised during his 2016 State of the State speech.
Authorities counted at least 90 cases of Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County, including 12 deaths. Some experts found there was not enough chlorine in the water-treatment system to control Legionella bacteria, which can trigger a severe form of pneumonia when spread through misting and cooling systems.
The disaster made Flint a national symbol of US government dereliction, with residents forced to line up for bottled water and parents fearing their children had suffered permanent harm. Lead can damage the brain and nervous system and cause learning and problems with behaviour. The crisis was highlighted as an example of environmental injustice and racism.
In Flint, families welcomed the charges against Snyder.
“They poisoned the whole city,” Roy Fields Sr said of officials elected and appointed to make sure residents were safe.
Fields’ adult daughter suffered a miscarriage. He later developed rashes, boils and a skin abscess.
“At first, we thought all we had to do was boil the water and be OK,” Fields, 62, said on Wednesday. “We cooked with it, drank it and when we heard about the problems with it, we stopped in 2014, but it was too late.”
He wants someone brought to justice.
“They talk about jail time,” Fields said. “But that does no good. Let them come back in here and work to help educate and do what they can to make this community whole. I was hostile. I had to forgive them in order to move forward.”
The news of charges “is a salve, but it isn’t the end of the story,” said Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha, a paediatrician who helped call attention to childhood health risks from Flint’s water.
“Without justice, it’s impossible to heal the scars of the crisis,” Hanna-Attisha said in a statement on Wednesday. “Healing wounds and restoring trust will take decades and long-term resources.”
More than 9,700 lead service lines at homes have been replaced. Flint’s water, which now comes from a Detroit regional agency, gets good marks, although many distrustful residents still use filters.
The criminal investigation has lasted five years under two teams of prosecutors. Fadwa Hammoud, who took over from Todd Flood, subsequently dropped charges in eight pending cases and said the investigation would start again. She said the first team had failed to collect all available evidence.
Separately, the state, Flint, a hospital and an engineering firm have agreed to a $641m settlement with residents over the water crisis, with $600m coming from Michigan. A judge said she hopes to decide by January 21 whether to grant preliminary approval. Other lawsuits, including one against the US Environmental Protection Agency, are pending.