Michigan’s attorney general in 2016 promised to investigate “without fear or favor” the scandal over Flint’s lead-tainted drinking water and pledged that state regulators would be locked up for fudging data and misleading the public.
Yet three years later, no one is behind bars. Instead, seven of 15 defendants have pleaded no contest to misdemeanors, some as minor as disrupting a public meeting. Their records eventually will be scrubbed clean.
That has angered some people in Flint who believe key players who could have prevented the lead disaster are getting off easy. Four of five people at the state Department of Environmental Quality who were on the front line of the crisis have struck deals. The remaining cases mostly center on a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease and early disastrous decisions to use water from the Flint River.
“I’m furious — absolutely furious,” said LeeAnne Walters, a mother of four who is credited with exposing the lead contamination. “It’s a slap in the face to every victim in the city of Flint.”
Walters, 40, said she was repeatedly brushed off by the Department of Environmental Quality, known as DEQ, even as she confronted officials with bottles of brown water. She testified in Congress after then-Gov. Rick Snyder in 2015 finally acknowledged the lead mess, and she later was honored with an international prize for grassroots environmental activism.
“Instead of people being held accountable, they’re getting a free pass,” Walters said. “The fact remains there wouldn’t have been a problem with the lead and the legionella if the water had been treated properly, if MDEQ would have done their job.”
Flint was one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in U.S. history. While waiting for a new pipeline to bring water from Lake Huron, the majority-black city of 100,000 pulled water from a river in 2014-15 without treating it to reduce corrosive effects on old pipes. Lead infected the distribution system in Flint, where 41 percent of residents are classified by the government as living in poverty.
Due to poor finances, Flint was being run by financial managers appointed by the governor. The uproar over water quality reached a peak by fall 2015 when a doctor reported high levels of lead in children, which can cause brain damage. The water no longer comes from the river and has significantly improved, but some residents are so distrusful that they continue to use bottled water.