Prosecutors in the U.S. state of Michigan on Tuesday charged four former government officials with criminal conspiracy for violating safety rules in connection with the Flint water crisis, which exposed residents to toxic levels of lead that were found in the city's drinking water.
The issue has been termed a national tragedy by many, so the prosecution of those responsible is seen as a victory for residents, many who fear that their tap water may still not be safe to drink as heavily corroded pipes still need to by replaced in many homes.
The state's attorney general, Bill Schuette, said former state-appointed emergency managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose and former city employees Howard Croft, a public works superintendent, and Daugherty Johnson, a utilities manager, were the latest to be charged in the case.
During a press conference in Flint, Schuette told reporters that the defendants conspired to operate the city's water treatment plant when it was not safe to do so.
"The tragedy that we know of as the Flint water crisis did not occur by accident," Schuette said. "Flint was a casualty of arrogance, disdain and failure of management, an absence of accountability."
Schuette added that a total of 13 people have been charged in the ongoing water crisis investigation. He also said 12 people in Flint have died from the water-borne Legionnaires' disease in Flint, though it is not yet confirmed whether or not these deaths were linked to the lead toxins found in the water supply.
According to Reuters, some have called for high-ranking state officials, including Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, to be charged, but he has said he believed he had not done anything criminally wrong.
But other critics are calling for investigations to go beyond criminal prosecutions to address the root causes of the Flint water crisis. Many have argued that Flint is a hallmark of environmental racism and that the bankruptcy of democracy represented in the emergency management system — which takes power out of the hands of elected officials and turns it over to unelected emergency managers like Darnell Earley, one those charged in the case — is ultimately to blame for the crisis.
“The emergency manager law is fundamentally flawed because it takes away the people’s right to vote and has remained unchanged since the Flint water crisis began," Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, said in a statement Tuesday. “Frankly, the entire law needs to be relocated to the scrap heap of history or, in the very least, significantly altered until that day comes."
Scott added that since the emergency manager only answers to the state governor, investigations should continue until all those involved face charges.
Flint is sandwiched between three of the Great Lakes in the U.S. — Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Erie. However, the city’s water source was switched from the Detroit water system, fed by Lake Huron, to the unfiltered and corrosive Flint River in 2014 in a bid to save money.
The city switched back to Detroit's water system again in October last year, but by that time some residents had been drinking the water for 19 months. Experts say lead is incredibly damaging to the body, and any exposure is a problem.