UPDATE: Former Michigan Director of Health and Human Services Nick Lyon has been charged with nine felony counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection in connection to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. On Thursday, Lyon pleaded not guilty to all charges; if convicted, each involuntary manslaughter charge carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
Prosecutors in Michigan have charged former governor Rick Snyder, who governed the state during the Flint water crisis, with two counts of willful neglect of duty, The New York Times reports. Snyder faces up to one year in prison on the misdemeanor charges, with a maximum fine of $1000.
A previous investigation into the Flint water crisis had led to charges against numerous city and state officials, but in June 2019 all those charges were dropped under the direction of the new attorney general, Dana Nessel. The new charges brought against Snyder are the result of a new investigation.
The prosecutors’ findings will be detailed by Nessel on Thursday, officials said per the Times, and it’s expected that additional charges will be brought against other officials and associates of Snyder.
“We believe there is no evidence to support any criminal charges against Gov. Snyder,” Brian Lennon, a lawyer for Snyder, said on Wednesday via the Times.
These new charges come five years after the Flint water crisis became a national scandal: Residents in the poor and predominately black city, about 65 miles north of Detroit, had been exposed to toxic levels of lead from corrosive drinking water that flowed through aging pipes. By that point, in January 2016, Flint residents, including thousands of children, had been drinking contaminated water drawn from the Flint River for nearly two years.
The city of Flint had long relied on Detroit’s water authority for its drinking water, but that changed around 2013. An “emergency manager appointed by Snyder to oversee Flint decided the city should cut ties with Detroit and join a new water district, though at the time a proper pipeline hadn’t been built yet. In April 2014, the manager signed an order to start pumping water from the Flint River — which had long been tainted by farm runoff, industrial sewage and other waste — a cost-cutting measure that saved about $1 million a year. While there was no lead in the Flint River, the water was so corrosive that treating it was hardly effective and it was able to leach lead out of the old pipes as it flowed throughout the city.
Problems began immediately with residents complaining about discolored water and sickness, while even General Motors declared the Flint River water was too corrosive for industrial purposes and switched to a cleaner source. By 2015, lead levels that were nearly seven times the EPA’s limit were being detected in Flint homes and children began testing positive for lead poisoning. The Flint emergency manager, however, rebuffed a city council request to switch back to Detroit water again citing costs, and for much of the year officials throughout the state downplayed the risk.
While Snyder finally agreed to switch Flint’s water supply back to Detroit’s system in October 2015, the lead levels throughout the city remained overwhelmingly high. A federal state of emergency was finally declared in January 2016, at which point state health officials said that every child under six in Flint should be considered lead-exposed.
Additional reporting by Althea Legaspi