Michigan State Officials Face Manslaughter Charges in Flint Water Crisis Deaths

Posted June 21, 2017

MP3 Interview with Melissa Mays, water crisis activist and founder of the Flint-based group Water You Fighting For, conducted by Scott Harris


The water crisis in Flint Michigan continues with thousands of residents still forced to use bottled water for drinking, cooking and cleaning. Flint’s crisis began in 2014 when an unelected city manager appointed by the governor attempted to save money by changing the town’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, triggering lead contamination that endangered the health of the entire population, particularly children.

Now after years of frustration, uncertainty and protest, the city’s residents were surprised and pleased to hear that Michigan’s Attorney General Bill Schuette had charged five city and state officials with involuntary manslaughter for a death resulting from the Flint water crisis. The officials, including the state’s Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, are accused of failing to notify and lack of action to stop the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, allowing the outbreak to continue spreading through Flint’s water system. At least 12 residents of Flint died of Legionnaires’ disease with 90 others sickened in two waves of the outbreak in 2015.

Despite the allegations of criminal wrongdoing brought against these state officials, Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has expressed his full support for them and has kept them in their jobs. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Melissa Mays, a water crisis activist and founder of the Flint-based group Water You Are Fighting For. Here, she discusses the current status of Flint’s water contamination crisis and the recent charges filed against city and state officials.

MELISSA MAYS: January of 2015, we received a letter at our house that said for the previous nine months, our water had been contaminated with a cancer-causing byproduct. And we realized that the false you know, "It's going to be OK, all the statements that the state and city had made were untrue. And so, my husband and I came up with, "What are You Fighting For?" to be a portal of accurate information. And so started testing the water and researching to find out what we were being exposed to and who was doing this to us. And along the way, we discovered lead, bacteria. People were dying. We worked with legislature. We have worked to change the laws not just in Michigan, but in the entire country because this isn't just happening to Flint. But unfortunately, today is Day 1,150 since we have had clean and safe water. So we've been fighting for health care for Flint residents, to have all the damaged pipes replaced in our homes, in the streets, and the service lines, and for the people to be held accountable who did this to us – because these were choices that were made.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, accountability is certainly in the news this past week. Five Michigan state officials, including some who report directly to Michigan Gov. Mitch Snyder, have recently been been charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection to an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease that's linked with the Flint water crisis. That outbreak of Legionnaire's killed a dozen people in Flint during the contamination crisis. Tell us our listeners a bit about the context for understanding these charges that have been leveled against these officials by Michigan's state attorney general.

MELISSA MAYS: Well, typically for a year, there's 78 deaths from Legionnaire's in the entire country. We had 12 in just a year-and-a-half period. The unfortunate part is these people knew about it. We had people in the Health Department, we had people who were working for the county and the state that their one job was to protect the public health and to let us know if things changed, like an outbreak of a bacteria - something that people could protect themselves from, because you basically inhale the bacteria in the droplets in the steam of the water such as in the showers.

So when these cases – and it like 100 cases and 12 deaths came up, they went out of their way to actually hide it. And because of this, the doctors didn't know and we have another 177 deaths from bacterial pneumonia, which is what Legionnaire's is that have gone misdiagnosed, basically. My son had pneumonia in September of 2014 and he 10 and that odd for someone to get pneumonia at that point in time. But my doctor, the pediatrician didn't know to look for Legionnaire's so he didn't, because no one alerted the doctors that there was this huge outbreak. They actually went out of their way to cover it all up. And because of that people died. So we were fortunate with my son, that he was put on the right antibiotic. But other people were not so lucky. So we're looking at about close to 200 people that don't have answers and there's no way to find justice for them because they lost their loved ones.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Melissa, as you look at these charges being leveled at the state officials, is this too little too late? Or are you satisfied that the wheels of justice, although they're slow, are finally starting to move in the right direction.

MELISSA MAYS: It's a good start. It's not good enough, but there has to be punishment for these people that completely did not do their job, they did the opposite. It needs to go up higher, because at the end of the day, these direct recruits reported to the governor. And his whole thing was running the state of Michigan of a business, instead a government, and we see that on a national level now. And the scary part about it is, is that profit was put over people the entire time. In these emails going back and forth, they were more worried about backlash and how much this was going to cost and what this was going to do rather than saving these people's lives, because again, even though we're seeing these charges, no one is in jail and we want them to live in Flint. We want them to shower in the burning, blistering, showers that we have to deal with and worrying if this shower is going to make me sick. Is this water going to make me sick? Is this water going to hurt my kids? Do these filters work?

I mean there's too many unanswered questions, because, at the end of the day, we still can't use our water and there's no end in sight for that.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Melissa, I've read some opinion in Flint that residents there are really pushing for an indictment of Gov. Snyder himself for his role in this crisis. What's your view of Gov. Snyder and should be the next step in terms of legal cases being developed around the Flint water crisis?

MELISSA MAYS: Oh, I absolutely agree because Gov. Snyder decided to take away the democratic responsibilities and right of the Flint residents and our elected officials locally, and have the state be the complete dictatorship – which is basically what the Emergency Manager law is. To settle a bottom line, he put one person in that he appointed and he was unelected that answered only to him, and so there was no way that he could say that he didn't know what was going on. Well, when you set up an emergency manager dictorship structure and you put yourself in complete charge of it, you have to be completely prepared to deal with the consequences and you need to be held accountable. And that's where he sits right now. He needs to be held accountable.

For more information visit Water You Fighting For at wateryoufightingfor.com; Water You Fighting For on Facebook at facebook.com/WaterYouFightingFor; Food and Water Watch at foodandwaterwatch.org.

Related Links:

Subscribe and get Between The Lines' Weekly Summary in your inbox!