More than three years ago, residents in the small city of Flint, Michigan, began to ask: Why? Why was their water was brown? Why was it making them sick? And, most importantly, why wasn’t the city doing anything about it?
This became nationally known as the Flint water crisis, which left the predominantly black city of almost 100,000 without safe drinking water, due to lead contamination after the city switched its source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. And it ain’t over. It’s far from it.
On Monday, the state announced two new charges, including involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office, against Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells in the state-led criminal investigation into how public officials handled the contaminated water crisis that began in April 2014, and the subsequent outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease from 2014 to 2016. Wells and her attorneys weren’t expecting this; the court hearing was supposed to determine whether she’d move to trial.
Instead, that hearing will occur Nov. 6 now that Todd Flood, special counsel to the case for the Michigan Attorney General’s office, has reviewed “other documents and testimony that came out last week,” according to The Associated Press. Wells was already facing two charges: obstruction of justice and lying to a peace officer.
District Court Judge William Crawford II will determine whether the case moves forward with the new charges at the November hearing, according to The Detroit Free Press. If it does and if Wells is found guilty, she’s looking at a 15-year maximum sentence.
Most people are familiar with the city’s lead problem—not necessarily the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak that killed 12 people in Genesee County, which includes Flint, in 2014 and 2015. Legionnaire’s is an extreme form of pneumonia. Officials haven’t been able to definitively link the outbreak to the 2014 water switch, but some experts are pretty certain that was it. The state is alleging that the doctor knew about the outbreak six months before she says she did during testimony.
Per Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office:
As the Chief Medical Executive of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Eden Wells has a responsibility to protect the health and welfare of Michigan residents. During the course of the investigation of the Flint Water Crisis, it is alleged that Wells attempted to withhold funding for programs designed to help the victims of the crisis, and then lied to an investigator about material facts related to the investigation.
Wells doesn’t seem to be the only one who lied about knowing when the outbreak happened, either. Gov. Rick Snyder might have, too. Harvey Hollins III, one of his top aides, told the courtroom Friday that the governor knew about the outbreak in December 2015, not January 2016 as Snyder had previously stated, according to The Detroit Free Press.
Wells is the latest in the spotlight, but 14 other state and local officials are facing criminal charges related to how they handled the water crisis, and two have already taken plea deals. Schuette launched the investigation in January 2016, and his office has been unforgiving. In June, he added involuntary manslaughter charges to five other official’s lists of charges. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon is the highest-ranking official among them.
Lyon knew about the bacterial outbreak in at least January 2015, yet failed to notify the public until a year later, according to an investigator’s report. Lyon had stated that “he can’t save everyone” and that “everyone has to die of something,” per that report. The governor has expressed support for both Lyon and Wells.
Residents and activists in the city of Flint have demanded that the attorney general hold Snyder accountable, too, but the office has been unsuccessful in even interviewing him. In June, the governor’s attorney said that Snyder would give statements if he were issued a subpoena to keep his statements confidential. So far, that hasn’t happened.
Meanwhile, the city continues to replace lead pipelines through its FAST Start Program. Earlier this month, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver announced the city has replaced 3,544 homes’ lines so far. The goal is 6,000 homes this year and the nearly 20,000 lines that make up the city replaced by 2020.
The water’s lead levels have dropped below the federal safety standard, bringing them to normal levels for a city with old pipes, Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards told The Guardian last month. Still, many residents continue to rely on bottled and filtered water out of distrust.
The city’s far from cleansing its residents and their water of this situation—just as the state is a long way from bringing the public officials accountable to justice.