Ex-state governor charged in Flint water crisis

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A water storage container sits in a home in Flint, Michigan, which is still dealing with the tainted water crisis in 2021

Washington (AFP) - Ex-Michigan governor Rick Snyder is among a number of former state officials charged over the Flint water crisis, authorities said Thursday, the latest development in a years-long health scandal that has come to symbolize social injustice in the US.

Prosecutors allege that Snyder willfully neglected his duty to protect residents of the decaying former industrial city that switched its drinking water source to the polluted Flint River to cut costs in 2014.

Officials failed to add corrosion controls to the new tap water source, allowing lead and other contaminants to leach from the city's aging pipe system.

Twelve people died in an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease after the switch, though authorities initially dismissed complaints from residents in the majority-Black city where many live below the poverty line.

"The people of Flint continue to suffer from the categorical failure of public officials at all levels of government who trampled upon their trust and evaded accountability for far too long," state solicitor general Fadwa Hammoud told a press conference.

Snyder, who was among nine former officials charged, denied two misdemeanor counts Thursday. He faces up to a year in jail on each if convicted.

Snyder's lawyer Brian Lennon called the charges "an outrageous political persecution."

"We are confident Governor Snyder will be fully exonerated if this flimsy case goes to trial," Lennon said. 

"These unjustified allegations do nothing to resolve a painful chapter in the history of our state."

The former director of the state health department, Nicolas Lyon, was charged with nine counts of involuntary manslaughter, which carry up to 15 years each in prison.  

Eden Wells, former executive of state medical services, was also hit with nine charges of involuntary manslaughter and an allegation of willful neglect of duty.

Hammoud said ex-health official Nancy Peeler misrepresented "data related to elevated blood lead levels of children in the city of Flint" and has been accused of misconduct. 

Three former local officials and two from Snyder's team were also charged.

Authorities now say Flint's water meets federal safety guidelines, outperforming comparable cities. 

However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it is safe to wash hands and bathe with unfiltered water, but urges against cooking or brushing teeth with it.

The US state of Michigan has agreed to pay some $600 million to victims of the crisis.

Most of the money is earmarked for children in the city of Flint, who were at greatest risk of neurological and physical harm from lead-tainted tap water.

More than 8,000 children are believed to have consumed lead-contaminated water, and a study found that the proportion of infants and children with high lead levels doubled after the water source switch.

The first charges related to the crisis were filed in 2016, but state prosecutors took up the case and presented it before a special court last year. 

Snyder is set to appear before a judge on January 19, with the other defendants appearing February 18.