Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has largely been safe from official blame regarding the lead-tainted water crisis in the city of Flint—until now.
Researchers with the University of Michigan School of Public Health and the Network for Public Health Law released a report Wednesday that details the “legal responsibility” that fell upon Snyder throughout the water crisis that struck the predominantly black city of 100,000. Activists and residents have been calling on the state to hold Snyder accountable, but the attorney general’s investigation has largely kept the governor out of it. For now.
The disaster highlighted how messy management structures, like Flint’s at the time of the water crisis, can get. The city was under a state-appointed emergency manager in 2014 when lead began to enter the water system because Flint was experiencing a financial emergency and switched water sources, to allegedly save money.
When the state takes over a city, who’s responsible? As the new report makes clear, not the city mayor or city council (at least legally). The state absolved all their power.
According to the 80-page report,, the governor, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the county health department are all responsible. Most offices are being officially charged under Attorney General Bill Schuette’s investigation, with the notable exception of the governor’s office.
Though it remains unclear when Snyder found out about the lead, or the Legionnaires disease outbreak that killed 12 people and was the result of the same water source switch, the evidence is clear that the governor was aware of local complaints regarding the water quality by October 2014. He knew enough to do something sooner than January 2016, when he finally declared a state of emergency.
The report states:
Even setting aside the Governor’s appointment of an emergency manager ... he bears significant legal responsibility for the crisis based on his supervisory role over state agencies. The Governor had adequate legal authority to intervene—by demanding more information from agency directors, reorganizing agencies to assure availability of appropriate expertise where needed, ordering state agencies to respond, or ultimately firing ineffective agency heads—but he abjured, either due to ignorance or willful neglect of duty. Flint residents’ complaints were not hidden from the Governor, and he had a responsibility to listen and respond.
When The Flint Journal/M-Live asked the governor’s office for comment, a spokesperson wrote in an email, “The governor is focused on moving forward to ensure Flint’s full recovery, both in terms of the water quality and economic redevelopment.”
Snyder could have focused on that earlier, though, by directing the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality or the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to take a closer look at Flint’s situation.
Such a move could have saved lives now lost—and saved the city’s children from the developmental issues they’re now facing.