As a probe begins into the water crisis gripping Flint, Mich., a top investigator announced Tuesday that if officials are found to have been grossly negligent, they could face charges as serious as manslaughter.
“We’re here to investigate what possible crimes there are, anything [from] involuntary manslaughter or death that may have happened to some young person or old person because of this poisoning, to misconduct in office,” said Todd Flood, special counsel for the state attorney general’s office who is in charge of the investigation. “We take this very seriously.”
Since the city switched suppliers in April 2014, corrosive tap water has caused the level of lead in kids’ blood to soar and has sparked fears of permanent neurological damage. In some cases, the water has been so poisoned by lead that it qualified as “toxic waste.”
A spike in Legionnaires’ disease led to 10 deaths during the same time period, although it’s not clear whether the bacterial outbreak was linked to drinking the water, according to Mlive.
Outrage over those deaths and the possible long-term effects of lead poisoning hung over Tuesday’s news conference. Flood was brought in to lead the investigation last month because the Department of the Attorney General is defending Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and various state departments against lawsuits brought by Flint residents.
Flood described a number of possible outcomes of the investigation. He said it could turn out that the crisis was simply a result of “honest mistakes,” the Associated Press reported.
But it could also turn out that city, county or state officials were guilty of a “breach of duty” or “gross negligence,” exposing them to possible criminal or civil actions, he said.
Flood said that the severest possible charge, manslaughter, was “not far-fetched.” He compared charging officials with manslaughter over the water crisis to charging construction workers with the same crime for leaving open manholes unattended, resulting in death.
He said he could also pursue restitution against both private companies and governments on behalf of Flint residents affected by the water crisis, according to the Detroit News.
Flood’s team will consist of nine full-time investigators, including former state and Detroit police officers as well as Andrew Arena, former head of Detroit’s FBI office.
A separate federal investigation also has been launched and will include prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office in Detroit as well as the FBI, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General and the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division, Reuters reported last week.
The two investigations will try to suss out who is to blame for Flint’s dangerous drinking water.
So far, state and federal officials have been trading blame, often along political party lines.
Last week, the EPA’s acting water chief, Joel Beauvais, told Congress that Michigan — under the leadership of Snyder — had ignored federal advice to treat Flint’s water for corrosive elements, which are believed to have eroded old lead pipes and contaminated drinking water. Beauvais also said the state delayed for months in telling the public about the health risks, according to the AP.
State officials shot back, however, claiming that the EPA did not act urgently enough, either.
Not even city officials are exempt from scorn. Although the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager when it switched from Detroit water to the highly corrosive Flint River, it was the Flint City Council that voted 7-1 on March 25, 2013 to end its contract with Detroit, a decision that opened the door for the later debacle, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Even then, though, Snyder’s office was heavily involved in the decision, the Free Press reported. The morning before the Flint City Council vote, the state’s Democratic treasurer called Snyder’s chief of staff to discuss “Flint water supply alternatives,” according to the Free Press. And the next morning, the treasurer held two more meetings regarding the switch.
Snyder, a tech venture capitalist elected in 2010 on promises to turn around the state’s floundering economy, has accepted some blame for the crisis. He has apologized — calling the crisis a “disaster” and his “Katrina” moment — and promised to fix it. He also has released his emails on the subject.
But Snyder also has claimed that his top aide’s concerns about Flint’s water were “blown off” by Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, an agency under the direction of a man whom Snyder appointed.
As the state and federal investigations proceed behind closed doors, public records are beginning to shed more light on the crisis and who might be at fault.
Last week, for instance, a liberal group released records showing that Snyder’s office knew of the Legionnaires’ outbreak more than nine months before the governor announced the problem this January, according to the Free Press.
“More than 40 cases reported since last April,” wrote Brad Wurfel, then the director of communications for Michigan’s Deptartment of Environmental Quality, in an email to Snyder’s director for urban initiatives and DEQ Chief Dan Wyant, a Snyder appointee. “That’s a significant uptick. More than all the cases reported in the last five years or more combined.”
A health official in Genesee County, where Flint is located, was “putting up the flare” and had “made the leap formally in his e-mail that the uptick in cases is directly attributable to the river as a drinking water source,” Wurfel wrote.
Snyder’s office released a statement saying that the governor “was not briefed on this issue until January 2016” and pointing to passages in Wurfel’s email calling the link to the city’s water as “premature” and “beyond irresponsible.”
But Snyder’s critics pounced on the public documents.
“For months the public has been asking Gov. Snyder what he knew and when he knew it regarding the Flint crisis and this e-mail shows that one of his top aides was aware nearly a year ago that county health officials were concerned that the switch to the Flint River could be potentially deadly,” said Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, the group that obtained the email.
On Tuesday, the Free Press published its own investigation into thousands of other emails that suggest city and state officials were aware of the Legionnaires’ outbreak eight months before Snyder disclosed it and that those officials also withheld information about the problem from county health investigators.
“We are very concerned about this Legionnaires’ disease outbreak,” Laurel Garrison of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote an April 27 email to Genesee County health officials, the Free Press reported. “It’s very large, one of the largest we know of in the past decade, and community-wide, and in our opinion and experience it needs a comprehensive investigation.”
The CDC official added: “I know you’ve run into issues getting information you’ve requested from the city water authority and the MI Dept of Environmental Quality.”
Five weeks later, however, an official from the state’s Department of Health and Human Services emailed Genesee County health officials to lambast them for speaking to the CDC.
“Relative to communications around the investigation, I believe that CDC is in agreement that their involvement really should be at the request of the state, rather than the local health department,” Collins said, according to the Free Press. “To be clear, we do value the skills and resources of our CDC colleagues, but we also recognize that their involvement needs to have some structure,” and “I want to reinforce the necessity that investigation communications from the Genesee County Health Department need to be directed to staff at the MDHHS.”
By December, county health officials were so frustrated they accused the state of a “deliberate cover-up.”
“The state is making clear they are not practicing ethical public health practice,” Tamara Brickey, the Genesee County Health Department’s public health division director, wrote in a Dec. 5, 2015 email to colleagues. “Now evidence is clearly pointing to a deliberate cover-up. … In my opinion, if we don’t act soon, we are going to become guilty by association.”
Whether any of these officials will be charged as a result of the two ongoing probes remains to be seen.
On Tuesday, state officials said they were taking Flint’s water crisis seriously.
“We’re not going to shortchange justice,” said Bill Schuette, the attorney general, sitting beside Flood, Arena and another investigator. “We’re not going to do justice on the cheap. We’re going to have a full and complete investigation, and where the truth goes, that’s where we’ll go.”
On Wednesday, Snyder will propose an additional $195 million in state spending to address the city’s emergency, including $25 million to replace lead-contaminated pipes, a spokesman told the AP.
The same day, the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee will hold a hearing on Flint’s water crisis.
Snyder turned down an invitation to speak, according to CNN.
Correction: On March 25, 2013, the Flint City Council voted to end its contract with Detroit and authorize a new agreement, under which it would get the majority of its water from Lake Huron and a small amount from the Flint River, according to Mlive. It was only later that the Flint River became the main source for the city’s water. Also, it is the Department of the Attorney General, not Attorney General Bill Schuette himself, that is defending the governor and various state departments against lawsuits brought by Flint residents.
Read more about Flint’s water crisis: