By HALEY YAMADA, JASMINE BROWN and MATT GERMAN, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — Demands for accountability in the Flint water crisis may soon be answered nearly seven years after people first began reporting the devastating side effects of the city’s lead-poisoned water.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced Wednesday that former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and eight other state officials would be charged in connection to the drinking water crisis, during which at least 12 people died and 79 people became ill from Legionnaires’ disease which was connected to the contaminated water.
Snyder is charged with two misdemeanor counts of willful neglect of duty, each carries a penalty of one year in jail or a fine of up to $1,000, according to court documents. Snyder pleaded not guilty via a Zoom hearing on Thursday.
The state’s former director of health and human services, Nicolas Lyon, and former chief medical executive, Eden Wells, are each facing nine counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Snyder, as well as the former emergency manager of Flint’s Department of Public Works, Howard Croft, who has been charged with two counts of willful neglect, will be back in court on Jan. 19. The other defendants are due back in court on Feb. 18. No other pleas have been entered yet.
Flint has a population of about 100,000 people, the majority of whom are Black. To save money, in 2014, the state switched the city’s water supply to come from the Flint River. An investigation later found there were highly toxic levels of lead in the water and that the cases of Legionnaires’ over the course of two outbreaks between 2014 and 2015 also coincided with the water source switch, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Pure and simple. This case is about justice, truth, accountability. Poisoned children [and] lost lives,” Nessel said during a press conference Thursday. “We may never know all the names of those who had their lives and livelihoods destroyed by this man-made crisis.”
Flint resident LeeAnne Walters has largely been credited with being the first to sound the alarm on the crisis. The mother of four testified in 2016 about how much her children suffered from drinking the water contaminated with lead.
“[My son] would scream and cry about how bad his skin burned,” Walters said to the Michigan Joint Committee on the Flint Water Public Health Emergency. “These are my kids. These are everybody’s kids.”
Snyder had apologized for the crisis during his 2016 State of the State address.
Nearly 9,000 children drank lead-contaminated water over the course of 18 months. Walters said Thursday that the charges are just the beginning of the community’s healing.
“There are huge victories that have [been] accomplished, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done,” said Walters. “I think the fact that we’ve had to go through it, it’s opened our eyes to, ‘Yes, there needs to be some community involvement and a check-and-balance system when it comes to a governmental system to make sure that things are being done properly.'”
“I would say, in my opinion, about 95% of people still distrust the water,” she added. Since 2016, the water is regularly tested and has been considered safe since 2018.
Although the tap water has been deemed safe, people like Shirley Drake say they still rely on bottled water.
“I don’t trust the water in the pipes,” said Drake. “So, for cooking and drinking, I get bottled water.”
Michigan state Sen. Jim Ananich, a Flint resident, said he doesn’t like when his 5-year-old son drinks the tap water. He thinks accountability will begin to rebuild trust within the community.
“Some people, I don’t think, will ever feel there’s justice,” said Ananich. “But, I think criminal convictions of folks will be a start.”
Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.