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Many In Flint Question Whether They'll Get Justice For Water Crisis

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

According to multiple media reports, Michigan's former governor and other officials will be charged in relation to the Flint water crisis seven years ago. Despite possible criminal charges, a lot of residents still question whether those officials will be held accountable. Michigan Radio's Steve Carmody reports.

STEVE CARMODY, BYLINE: Nearly seven years ago, government leaders here pushed the button that switched the city of Flint's drinking water source from Detroit's water system to the Flint River.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Here's to Flint.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Here's to Flint.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hear, hear.

CARMODY: The intent was to save money. The result was a complete disaster. Improperly treated river water damaged pipes, which then released lead and other contaminants into the city's drinking water. Eighteen months later, the water was switched back, but the damage was done. Blood lead levels soared in young children. People were forced to use bottled water for drinking and washing clothes. The city was forced to rip out thousands of old pipes. While testifying about the Flint water crisis before Congress four years ago, former Governor Rick Snyder acknowledged the mistakes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICK SNYDER: Local, state and federal officials - they all failed the families of Flint.

CARMODY: Snyder was not among the 15 state and local government officials who faced criminal charges for their handling of the crisis. Half of them pled guilty to lesser charges in exchange for no jail time, and in 2019, Michigan's new attorney general dropped charges against the remaining defendants, citing problems with the original investigation. The investigation seemed over until yesterday, when the Associated Press reported that several former government officials, including former Governor Snyder, would be facing new charges. If that happens, legal experts say, it would be a difficult case for prosecutors. Peter Hammer teaches law at Wayne State University in Detroit. He says despite possible difficulty getting convictions, it's important to bring charges.

PETER HAMMER: Especially in an era where we're living where people are not being held accountable, this could be an important statement about the significance of the rule of law and that not even the highest public official in the state is going to get off scot-free.

CARMODY: A spokeswoman for former Governor Rick Snyder calls the reports of impending charges a public relations smear campaign, saying that, if brought, they would be meritless. Since enduring 18 months of foul-smelling, dirty tap water that made them sick, Flint residents have demanded justice and compensation. A U.S. district court judge is expected to decide in the coming days if she'll give preliminary approval to a massive settlement agreement resolving most of the thousands of outstanding lawsuits.

Last year, the state of Michigan announced it struck a deal with attorneys representing Flint residents to pay $600 million into a settlement fund. A few months later, the city of Flint, a local hospital and an engineering firm agreed to chip in another $41 million. Nearly 80% of that money would be set aside for plaintiffs who were young children or minors during the crisis. They are the ones most at risk for suffering long-term lead-related health problems. But a growing chorus of critics say it's not enough. A group of Flint civic and religious leaders led by Pastor John McClane gathered Monday outside the city's water plant to express concern about the settlement.

JOHN MCCLANE: We believe that the proposed settlement, as currently allocated, is just as disrespectful as the injury caused by the water crisis tragedy itself.

CARMODY: In addition to tens of thousands of Flint residents, there are the lawyers, lots of them. More than 140 took part in a Zoom hearing with the judge last month. This is part of the challenge facing the judge - how to divide a large pool of money without leaving some feeling victimized again. Flint's mayor says it's important his residents have a belief in justice, and developments this week may help with that.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Carmody in Flint.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'INDECIS' "STAYING THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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