Flint’s Water Crisis Isn’t Over

The Flint water crisis began nine years ago. Despite initially drawing huge headlines and promises to fix the city’s poisoned drinking supply, no one responsible for the crisis has gone to jail, and residents say water still isn’t fully drinkable.

Then Flint mayor Karen Weaver speaks to residents during a town hall on water, public safety, and job opportunities on March 17, 2016, in Flint, Michigan. (Brett Carlsen / Getty Images)

Imagine for a moment that you and your children are poisoned. The culprit who attacked you is, unbelievably, your own government. The life that you worked hard to build, overcoming obstacles and life’s curveballs, has been forever damaged. Many of your family, friends, and neighbors have grown ill as the months and years drag on. A large number of the sick go on to die. The causes of death run the gamut. Relatively young people die of cancers for which they have no family history. Others’ kidneys or liver fail. Many develop heart problems or sudden strokes. Children suffer from brain damage, developing learning disabilities and volatile mood swings that cause disruptions in their schooling, extracurriculars, and relationships.

And nearly a decade later, no one who knowingly attacked your mind, body, and spirit is in prison.

Not the low-level office lackey who wasn’t really involved but could have sounded the alarm; not the middle-manager government bureaucrat who looked the other way knowing people would die; not even the high-level sacrificial lamb who didn’t mastermind the scheme, but was chosen by the big poo-bahs to be violently tossed under the bus. And definitely not the key players who actively executed, and then covered up, the crime.

Adding insult to poisonous injury, despite assurances from the government who poisoned you, and a compliant media that has all but abandoned you in favor of regurgitating what the government criminals tell them, you’re still actively being attacked by the water your state and city are pumping through your taps and showerheads.

Flint, Michigan residents need not imagine this dystopian hellscape. They’ve been living it for nine years today.

Or, to be exact, 3,287 days.

Despite the Flint water crisis still being an active, urgent crisis for the people in Flint, for the majority of Americans, the crisis ceased registering as one five years ago. Back in 2018, then governor Rick Snyder — who had thus far avoided accountability by feigning ignorance and the nobody-told-me mantra — declared Flint’s water “restored” and back to “safe” pre-2014 crisis levels.

As Status Coup broke that same year, this was a deadly lie. Snyder’s government, specifically his environmental department, had manipulated Flint’s water-testing data, literally flushing away the evidence of high water lead levels in order to artificially produce lower data and declare the city’s water safe. When approached by Status Coup, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) actually acknowledged that the governor’s environmental department had violated federal regulations by sending officials into residents’ homes and running their water for several minutes before collecting water samples (and telling residents to do so themselves when they did the testing on their own). This was a blatant violation of the lead and copper rule, the EPA’s gold standard for water testing.

“Falsifying a federal and state regulatory compliance test: that is a crime,” legendary environmental consumer advocate Erin Brockovich told Status Coup about the manipulated testing in 2018. In light of the falsified tests, which Brockovich called “cheating,” she called for Snyder’s environmental department’s testing to be flushed down the toilet:

The sample set is representative of at least some not testing properly, and therefore the entire sample set should be invalidated. Without proper training and compliance, one must assume all of the samples are not valid.

So, of course the agency tasked with protecting the United States’ environment and public health acted upon this scandalous information, right?

Wrong. The EPA did worse than nothing. It echoed the criminally fraudulent testing, passed off by Governor Snyder as Flint’s “Mission Accomplished,” and lent its rubber stamp to the lie that Flint’s water was safe.

But five years after Flint’s water was declared “restored,” one only has to spend some time in the embattled, impoverished Rust Belt city — or just speak with enough residents — to know that nearly a decade later, Flint’s water is still contaminated.

“My water has a sewer smell off and on . . . and black shiny stuff coming out in the water,” Flint resident Joelena Freeman told Status Coup. “It’s gross and we have no idea what it is or what it could be doing to us. But we have no choice but to shower in it and hope for the best. I mean, dang, it’s a rotten way to live day to day and for this long.”

Melissa Mays, a Flint mother of three who became the lead plaintiff against Governor Snyder and the state of Michigan in the 2017 settlement that awarded the city $97 million toward lead service-line replacement, also made clear that the city’s water is in no way safe.

“My water smells like straight pond because it’s TTHM testing time again so no chlorine [in the water],” Mays said. Her chlorine reference is in regard to water testing underway looking at total trihalomethane (TTHM) levels in Flint’s water. TTHMs are disinfection byproducts that, at elevated levels, can cause cancer, and were found to far exceed safe health levels in Flint in 2014.

Mays, along with other activists, has been fighting for justice and clean water for eight years now. Very little has changed, but Mays told Status Coup that giving up is not an option:

If we give up, this damaged, corroded, unstable infrastructure will continue to crumble and innocent people will suffer in Flint and every city out there that can and will end up just like us if justice isn’t done. It should not take 9 years to replace the mains, service lines & interior plumbing destroyed by those in power. We cannot and will not give up.

Just as problematic as Flint’s water, Michigan’s political and so-called justice system has become just as toxic, ultimately revictimizing Flint residents all over again.

“Flint was poisoned for privatization, and profit, and the fight continues,” Mays continued. “Waking up every day knowing that we have to fight for the basic human right to safe water and we’re sick because of it is exhausting.”

For years, Flint residents had hoped that its state attorney general’s office would fight like hell and win some form of justice for them. Instead, nearly a decade later, it’s beginning to look highly unlikely that any government official or culpable player that caused their suffering will see prison time.

Prosecutors who led an initial three-year Flint water criminal investigation, launched in 2016, were building momentum. After yearlong pretrials against the head of the state health department and the state’s chief medical executive, a judge had bound both over to face jury trials for involuntary manslaughter charges.

The special prosecutor who presided over those cases and the entire criminal investigation, Todd Flood, was also building a case against Governor Snyder himself — for involuntary manslaughter. As yours truly broke in the Intercept in 2021, part of the case being built against Snyder was based on phone calls prosecutors obtained — showing a flurry of phone calls over two days in October 2014 between Snyder, his chief of staff, and the state health department director — at the same time as cases of the deadly waterborne Legionnaires’ disease were surging in Flint. The sequence and high volume of the calls led prosecutors to conclude that Snyder and his lieutenants were attempting to cover up the outbreak.

“This evidence shows the Governor, his administration, Director Lyon, and the MHA [Michigan Health and Hospital Association] knew about this outbreak of Legionnaires’ in October 2014, and were interested in keeping the information from going public,” then special prosecutor Flood wrote in a subpoena draft.

The original prosecution team was not stopping at Snyder. As I broke in the Guardian in 2022, other prosecutors and investigators were close to filing sprawling racketeering, or RICO, charges against the masterminds of a criminally fraudulent financial scheme that served as the dark underbelly sparking the water crisis. Other key defendants were beginning to cooperate with prosecutors, signaling their willingness to “flip” on top officials within the Snyder administration, which prosecutors believed would help them gather the evidence needed to charge Snyder himself.

And then Dana Nessel walked through the sttorney general’s office.

Nessel, who all but condemned the aforementioned investigation as a candidate for attorney general — attacking Flood and criticizing what she perceived as the investigation’s lack of results — entered office in 2019 and cleaned house. She fired Flood, chief investigator and former Detroit FBI chief Andy Arena, and most of the original team of prosecutors and investigators. She claimed, with little evidence, that the team had fumbled the ball, failing to secure millions of key documents while messing up procedural steps that would ultimately jeopardize convictions. Nessel appointed her solicitor general Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy to essentially restart the entire investigation from scratch.

Both went to Flint in 2019 and spoke in front of residents, decrying what they criticized as mistakes of the original investigation team and promising them that justice was only being “delayed.”

Four years later, Nessel’s team has all but lit the investigation, and any possible justice for Flint, on fire. Rather than getting into the long, thorny weeds, here is the gist of the disastrous, restarted second investigation launched by Nessel and her handpicked prosecutors. Much of the below comes from high-level sources familiar with both the original and second investigation.

Step 1: Nessel’s prosecutors choose not to receive an in-person debrief from the chief investigator they fired.

Step 2: Nessel’s prosecutors all but ignore an in-depth transition memo provided to them outlining the widespread financial fraud scheme that caused the Flint water crisis.

Step 3: Nessel’s prosecutors meet with government officials inquiring into the financial fraud case that had already been built by the original investigation. Sources told Status Coup that Nessel’s prosecutors “clearly don’t know the basics” of the case.

Step 4: In June 2019, Nessel dismisses charges against eight key state and city officials — including the two top health officials a judge has ruled must face jury trials for voluntary manslaughter. Along with the serious involuntary manslaughter charges being tossed, financial fraud charges related to the KWA pipeline bond fraud are also dismissed. At the time, she assured Flint residents that the dismissals would not preempt her from recharging those same officials.

Step 5: Nessel’s prosecutors forego the public pretrials approach that the original Flint prosecution team used, instead opting to bring its evidence through a secretive, one-man grand jury process (i.e. a judge). The process is not often used in Michigan.

Step 6: In January 2021, Nessel’s office charges Governor Snyder with two counts of misdemeanor willful neglect of duty, charges with a maximum prison sentence of one year and fine of $1,000. Status Coup’s reporting indicates that the pre-Nessel investigation was building a much more serious case against Snyder for involuntary manslaughter (which has been confirmed by two other Michigan reporters).

Along with Snyder, Nessel’s prosecutors charge eight other state and city officials — including Snyder’s top adviser Richard Baird and former press secretary Jarrod Agen. As I broke for VICE News and Detroit Metro Times in 2020, Baird, known as Snyder’s right-hand man and “fixer,” offered sick Flint residents payoffs in exchange for their silence.

Former Flint emergency managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, who were originally charged by special prosecutor Flood for alleged financial fraud related to the KWA bond deal, but had those charges dismissed in 2019 by Nessel, are recharged. But Nessel’s team does not bring back the financial fraud charges against them; the two are charged only with felony misconduct in office.

Step 7: Attorneys for Snyder and other defendants ask the courts to dismiss charges, pointing to the fact that Nessel’s prosecutors did not use a “taint” team — a group of independent attorneys not involved with the case to comb through the evidence and remove anything protected by attorney-client privilege — as part of their gathering of evidence. Attorneys also call for dismissal of charges based on Nessel using a one-man grand jury to file the indictments against Snyder and others, a move that defendants’ attorneys claim violated Michigan’s constitution.

Step 8: In 2022, in a seven to zero ruling, the Michigan Supreme Court rules that Nessel’s prosecutors violated the state constitution by using a one-man grand jury to bring criminal indictments against Snyder and eight other defendants. As a result, charges against Governor Snyder and seven other defendants were dismissed.

Step 9: Nessel’s prosecutors appeal — and lose. As of today, the nine-year anniversary, Nessel’s prosecution team claims that the investigation is still “ongoing” and that there is a path to getting charges refiled and defendants in front of a jury.

Unfortunately, for the poisoned residents of Flint, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Sources indicate that the statute of limitations, which is six years for most felonies in Michigan, has already run out for most of the criminal charges against state and city officials. The only remaining charges that would still potentially be in play are involuntary manslaughter (with a ten-year statute of limitations).

The attorney general’s office did not respond to Status Coup’s request for comment on how the investigation is still ongoing if the charges against Snyder and other defendants have been thrown out by the Michigan Supreme Court and they’ve lost their appeal.

With the odds of justice for Flint residents dwindling, and residents still complaining about water they insist is contaminated, Flint has become one of the most prominent environmental calamities in American history to be quietly erased from the public and media consciousness.

But Flint is still suffering. Or, as the late Flint resident Tony Palladeno once told me, “This place ain’t safe, it’s not safe at all. We got a pistol in our mouth everyday — it’s called tap water.”