Six years after Flint water switch, residents fear justice may never come

Flint water tower

Six years ago this Saturday, Flint officials turned off their water supply from Detroit and allowed Flint River water to start flowing into homes.

Six years ago this Saturday, Flint officials turned off their water supply from Detroit and allowed Flint River water to start flowing into homes. The rest is infamous: at least 12 died and up to 12,000 children were exposed to contaminated drinking water, while state officials ignored pleas for help.

Flint residents say they’re still awaiting justice, as no one has gone to prison for actions related to the crisis. Some fear the Attorney General’s office is running out of time to bring charges because the statute of limitations for most felonies is six years.

“It’s a very big concern,” said Bishop Bernadel Jefferson of Faith Deliverance Center church in Flint. 

She said there’s been little communication between the Attorney General’s office and community leaders about progress in the case since prosecutors in Dana Nessel’s office dropped charges last summer and vowed to relaunch the investigation.

Nessel, a Democrat, inherited the case from her Republican predecessor, Bill Schuette. 

“There’s still people dying, ending up with cancer. You can do whatever you want to me and nothing happens to you?” Jefferson said. “That tells me that a dog’s life is worth more than a human being’s to those that are in authority in Michigan.”

The Attorney General’s office says that’s not the case. Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who lead the criminal investigation, released a statement last week to “correct the misconception” that six years from the date the water switched to the Flint River — April 25, 2014 — is the deadline to bring criminal charges. 

“Criminal statutes of limitations vary depending on the offense and the date of the alleged criminal act,” the statement from Hammoud and Worthy read. “Though we cannot comment on the specifics of our investigation, we remain on track, and we are delivering on our commitment to the people of Flint.”

The assurance comes despite Worthy telling Flint residents last June that prosecutors had as little as nine months left to file charges because of the statute of limitations. 

The latest statement from Nessel’s office did not elaborate, leading to speculation that prosecutors could:

  • Bring charges before Saturday
  • Issue them at a later time and contend the six-year statute of limitations began after the switch from Detroit to Flint water.
  • Pursue charges at a later time such as manslaughter, which has a 10-year statute of limitations.

Courtney Covington, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office, said the office still plans to file charges. 

“We’ve had to be quiet for a reason. We want to make sure nothing jeopardizes the integrity of this investigation,” she told Bridge.

‘It’s disgusting that it’s been six years’

For Flint residents, that likely means waiting even longer in their pursuit of justice.

Schuette first issued charges in April 2016 and eventually filed them against 15 state and local officials. None resulted in prison sentences and about half ended in plea deals by the time Schuette left office in 2018.

Campaigning to succeed him, Nessel pledged that she would ensure all those who are criminally responsible get properly charged. 

Then last summer, her prosecutors shocked Flint residents by dropping charges against the eight remaining officials, including former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and former Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells. 

The decision followed an investigation that had taken three years and cost $30 million, but Hammoud and Worthy said they had to start a fresh investigation because Schuette’s team didn’t pursue “all available evidence.”

“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 [former office], particularly regarding the pursuit of evidence,” they said at the time. “After a complete evaluation, our concerns were validated.”

Ten months later, still no charges have been filed. 

“It’s disgusting that it’s been six years and no one has been held accountable for this,” said Nayyirah Shariff, director of advocacy group Flint Rising. 

She said she developed seizures and chronic asthma after drinking the tainted water in 2014 and 2015 — conditions that could become life-threatening due to the respiratory risks of the coronavirus.

“Residents deserve answers,” Shariff said. “If they’re going to expand more people being charged, that would feel better. But if it’s just one or two tokens, I’ll be disappointed where you’re not going to see justice from the court system. Why does it exist if you’re not bringing justice to people?”

Expectation of justice

Because the old charges were dismissed without prejudice, prosecutors could refile the same charges. 

Lyon, Wells and former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley were all charged with involuntary manslaughter. Lyon and Earley also faced misconduct in office charges, while Wells faced obstruction of justice charges.

In Michigan, the statute of limitations for most felonies is six years, except for charges like manslaughter (10 years) and murder (no limit).

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Saturday, the anniversary of the switch, is the deadline, said Harold Gurewitz, an attorney representing MDHHS’ Nancy Peeler, one of the former defendants whose charges were dismissed last year.

“It depends on what it is that the prosecutors would claim to be the criminal act,” he said. 

Peeler was charged with conspiracy, willful neglect of duty and misconduct in office on allegations she suppressed data about blood levels in Flint children. 

“Those things occurred in 2015. So, based upon that it would be six years from whatever that is,” Gurewitz said. 

Flint residents balance skepticism, apathy, anger and a loss of hope when they think of the lack of justice so far in the case, said state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint.

But Ananich said he feels confident the Attorney General’s office will produce results. He said he hasn’t received many updates on the investigation and he would “prefer if the public was given a little more understanding of what’s going on,” but that he “felt some comfort” when he saw the office reveal their charges against Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith, including embezzlement, misconduct in office and conducting a criminal enterprise.

“That obviously was a long investigation, very thorough, and then all of a sudden there were results,” Ananich said. “Once I saw that, I felt like, ‘OK, this must be their mode of operation.’”

Ananich and Flint-area Rep. John Cherry, a Democrat, introduced bills last year to extend the statute of limitations on misconduct in office charges from six to 10 years. The bills haven’t gained traction in the Republican-led Legislature. 

“We wanted to give the prosecutors as much time as they needed to make sure that we got justice, but if they feel that’s not something they need to make sure they get that, then that’s OK,” Ananich said. 

“What they were saying is it’s not as if every crime happened on the date of the switch — there were other crimes that went on afterward.”

Still, “there’s an expectation that justice be somewhat timely,” he said.

Covington, of the Attorney General’s office, told Bridge she understands that “there’s a lot of distrust” among Flint residents toward state government. “The people of Flint think that no one is fighting for them,” she said. “But ultimately there is a team of people who is doing everything in their power to … to seek justice for them.”

For Jefferson and Shariff, the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is another reminder of how the state could have — but failed — to respond to Flint’s cries for help.

“Now the world feels what we felt,” Jefferson said. “You don’t have a job. You don’t have your necessities. You don’t get to do what you want to do. We’ve been like that — Saturday it will be six years.”

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middle of the mit
Wed, 04/22/2020 - 2:05am

Thank you for reporting this.

It is important to keep in mind what happens when you put party and money before people.

People always lose.

Wed, 04/22/2020 - 8:32am

And the democrat governor and AG stop the investigation into this BS and are covering up for Snyder the Snake!! WHY?????????

Wed, 04/22/2020 - 9:40am

Bring charges for what? The employees involved were trying to do their best with the information available at the time. The City of Flint had an opportunity to lower the cost of water for their residents, and took that opportunity. It didn't work out. Life happens. It is not guaranteed that everything be perfect.

Timothy Sullivan
Wed, 04/22/2020 - 10:52am

When you run more acidic water through metal pipes with lead, this is what happens. Flint River water tends to be more acidic - much like desalinated water used in Santa Barbara, CA - than Lake Huron water that Detroit pumped in. You can use it, but there are chemicals you must put in to reduce the acidity, and they did not do that. When the water that used to be clear before starting came out brown, the State's managers did not do much, more worried about saving money than fixing (or ignoring) the problem. The chemicals only cost a few bucks each day. Even non-engineers like me know that much, though the damage the State did will provide a caseload for the Michigan Disability Determination Service (the agency I retired from) in processing SSI claims that will most surely keep coming.

Wed, 04/22/2020 - 11:49am

Again more governmental incompetence. Is there a difference between a willfull act and a bunch of people thinking they have the answers and understand something they really don't? I'd still like to know why, how and under who's authority the Emergency Financial Manager's job morphed into getting into and running long term water projects for the city of Flint?

middle of the mit
Wed, 04/22/2020 - 8:53pm

I agree! More governmental incompetence. The problem is Matt, the people of Flint weren't in control. Neither were their elected officials. Do you libertarians and conservatives understand what an EFM is. The people of The State of Michigan know that you do, because you reinforced it without the ability for the people to have a referendum. After WE voted it down! Do you understand what that means?

What you are trying to tell us is that the Flint Department of Water or whatever they call it, didn't know they were missing one chemical. That one chemical was the one chemical that lined the pipes and kept the lead from leaching into the water.

Who do you think made that decision? The people at the water department? LOL!

The elected officials,that had been using it for decades?

If you take over a town, you have responsibility to do for the people of the town what would serve them best. Saving money and poisoning people is not serving people. When you run a government like a business, the people will always lose.

And the managers will always blame the employee.

Because ya know.

The employees always have control over everything!

And why aren't we blaming Rick Snyder* for putting someone in control of a city when that person didn't know anything about running a city. Bankrupt attorneys don't care about people. And neither do EFM's.

See I always thought that when you put an Emergency Financial Manager in place to TAKE OVER elected officials, you would think that person would be qualified to do the job that you asked them to do. And you would think that they would take into account all of the Dept heads as a member of their team. But that's not what EFM's do.

They take it over and sell everything they can to the lowest bidder that has money, if ya get my drift.

We see that now.

Learn and listen and then understand.

(*) why, how and under who's authority the Emergency Financial Manager's job morphed into getting into and running long term water projects for the city of Flint?

Just in case you didn't see the asterisk, Rick Snyder. The Governor who appointed him.

It's called personal responsibility.

Have ya heard of it?

You said you could run cities better. Now we see the truth

Captain Obvious
Wed, 04/22/2020 - 10:13am

This article is literally a dumpster fire.

No one died as a result of the lead levels, and lead is the subject of this entire controversy.

Some people DID die from legionairres disease, along with nearly TEN THOUSAND other people in the same year - Legionella outbreaks are very common and are NOT the subject of this inquisition whatsoever.

No one has died from lead poisoning as a result of this controversy; No one will. Why? Because the lead levels in these kids blood was considered safe only a few decades ago. The only thing that has changed is the "acceptable" level of lead in blood samples but we have absolutely zero data to correlate anything at these levels to any specific outcome.

Stop sensationalizing this. I know what you are doing here - Doing what bridge and all the other fake news journalists do best nowadays - Trying to create hysteria, because hysterical people's votes are easier to influence.

Total garbage article.

Wed, 04/22/2020 - 12:42pm

First of all, this post is illogical and insensitive. Full of the same old arguments of people who have no depth of understanding of the big picture. Talk about "hysteria". You write like many of the other commenters on this site with their fingers in their ears, saying "LA, LA, LA, I am not listening". Childish and immature name calling, blaming and scapegoating. Of course you, or your family were not involved so it is not your problem Yours is the FAKE NEWS. WAKE UP!!

Wed, 04/22/2020 - 8:41pm

Bernadette is definitely getting deported after the next civil war. She's off the deep end

middle of the mit
Fri, 04/24/2020 - 7:55pm

See who is calling for war and deporting American citizens?

This is NOT a both sides BS fest.

It's one sided.

And if the pandemic is politicized, WE know who is politicizing it.

Give them what they want.

We will take the blame either way and the media will allow us to.

Timothy Sullivan
Wed, 04/22/2020 - 10:25am

Nice story, but it would be nice to know why the case was yanked from Tom Leyton's office. He and his staff had worked on the case when it was first prosecuted. If he lacked the staff (numbers), they could have been supplemented by the AG's office or borrowed from neighboring Oakland County. Both Leyton and Jessica Cooper of Oakland County are long-serving, and Cooper a former Appeals Court judge. What pray tell did they do to be passed over on this?

Wed, 04/22/2020 - 2:31pm

Leyton probably shouldn't have been involved in the investigation or prosecution of anything Flint employees. He represented the Genesee County Health Department, further demonstrating that the prosecution intentionally selected some for prosecution over others with the same legal

Wed, 04/22/2020 - 1:18pm

Don't underestimate the effect of this delay on the people of MI. I can only imagine the fear within MDHHS with every staff member feeling a target on their back, fearful of being prosecuted "if they did not do enough". This creates a culture of cowardice and shows up in the advice our Gov is receiving on the current pandemic. The MDHHS's current quest for zero risk is putting our state's economic future at absolute risk.

Wed, 04/22/2020 - 2:26pm

I had a post before but I can't find it. To say that the Flint Water change solely caused a Legionnaires outbreak in Flint that killed 12 people is simply false. Take a look at page 76 of the attached:

Page 60 is interesting as well.

12 people did not die from legionnaires, 12 outbreak associated deaths were investigated. The actual number was much less, and it's a county number, not a Flint number. But why would we let the truth get in the way of a good story?

middle of the mit
Wed, 04/22/2020 - 8:58pm

It is quite obvious that conservatives don't understand anything about lead poisoning. They think you die from it.

And you want to take their advice now?

Lead poisoning
Lead poisoning is a type of metal poisoning caused by lead in the body. The brain is the most sensitive. Symptoms may include abdominal pain, constipation, headaches, irritability, memory problems, inability to have children, and tingling in the hands and feet. It causes almost 10% of intellectual disability of otherwise unknown cause and can result in behavioral problems.Wikipedia
Symptoms:Intellectual disability, abdominal pain, constipation, headaches, irritability, memory problems, inability to have children, tingling in the hands and feet
Causes:Exposure to lead via contaminated air, water, dust, food, consumer products

Fri, 04/24/2020 - 11:06am

This article is a bit old so middle of the mit may be on to other postings. What you say about lead is true, but the facts of the situation was that prior to the water source switch the Genessee County Health Dept did not even follow up with children unless their blood levels were at least 20. The Hanna-Attisha and state studies were looking at children whose levels were 5 or above. There was a study that indicated that there was a slight increase in blood lead levels that "conincided" with the water change. Other studies conclude that the increase may have been attributable to random variations from year to year, not the water source switch. And another study that looked at the sledge from wastewater found years where the lead content was higher than before the water switch.

middle of the mit
Fri, 04/24/2020 - 7:57pm

Let's see what the test results are in 5 more years.

Thu, 04/23/2020 - 3:31pm

You want to blame someone? Start with the Mayor of Flint who thought she was going to teach the Detroit Water Board a lesson by refusing to pay for their water. Brilliant move lady mayor.