Michigan Ex-Gov. Rick Snyder Charged in Flint Water Crisis

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January 13, 2021

Michigan’s former governor Rick Snyder was charged Wednesday with willful neglect of duty for his role in the deadly Flint water crisis that poisoned residents and is still overshadowing the city.

The indictment of the former governor on two misdemeanor counts was filed Wednesday evening and is expected to be announced Thursday by the Michigan attorney general’s office, in addition to charges against several other former state and city officials. If convicted, Snyder would face up to a year in prison or a fine of $1,000 on each count.

Snyder’s lawyer didn’t respond to a request for comment from FRONTLINE but told the Associated Press “there is no evidence to support criminal charges.” In his State of the State speech in 2016, Snyder apologized to Flint residents. “Government failed you: federal, state and local leaders by breaking the trust you placed in us. I am sorry most of all that I let you down,” he said. “You deserve better. You deserve accountability; you deserve to know the buck stops here with me.”

He added: “ I take full responsibility to fix the problem.”

The indictment dates back to April 25, 2014, the day that the state of Michigan switched Flint’s water source to the Flint River, billing it as a cost-saving measure. The poorly treated water corroded the city’s aging pipes, releasing high amounts of lead into the water. The pipes also became a breeding ground for legionella, a bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of pneumonia that can be fatal if not properly treated.  

Flint residents immediately began complaining about the smell, taste and filthy appearance of the water, but their concerns were dismissed. In the 18 months that followed, they unwittingly drank and bathed in lead-contaminated water. Officially, 90 people were sickened, and 12 of them died in what would become one of the worst Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in U.S. history. A FRONTLINE investigation, Flint’s Deadly Water, found the toll is likely far higher. 

Through it all, Snyder’s administration took no major action until a doctor publicly revealed high lead levels in the city’s children. State and county officials had been logging cases of Legionnaires’ since the outbreak began in 2014 but failed to notify the public until the outbreak had subsided. Snyder has said he was unaware of the outbreak at the time. 

Those exposed to the lead-tainted water, including thousands of children, may suffer severe chronic health problems for the rest of their lives. More than six years after the crisis, lead service lines are still being replaced. Many residents are still drinking bottled water, no longer able to trust what comes out of their taps.

The charges against Snyder come after an earlier effort to hold officials accountable was abandoned in 2019. A special prosecutor had charged several officials in connection with the crisis, but the cases were dropped, and a new investigation was launched by the current governor, Gretchen Whitmer.

News of the charges Wednesday failed to satisfy some in Flint who’ve been demanding accountability. “You really just don’t have the strength for this anymore,” said Tony Palladeno, a local activist. “I don’t think it’s right that he’s getting away with a slap on the wrist, but I’m not surprised. … I can tell you we are used to this; we’re used to no one standing up for us.”

Abby Ellis contributed reporting.


Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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