Debate Over Flint Water Crisis Plays Out In Courtrooms And State Capitol

Sep 14, 2016
Originally published on September 14, 2016 6:27 pm
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For the first time today, a Michigan state employee was convicted for actions during the Flint water crisis. This happened as the discussion about what to do with the city's tainted water plays out in courtrooms in Michigan and on Capitol Hill. From Flint, Michigan Radio's Steve Carmody reports.

STEVE CARMODY, BYLINE: This morning, 65-year-old Corinne Miller sat quietly in a Flint courtroom. The retired state worker was there to plead no contest to a charge of willful neglect of duty. Miller is the former director of the State Department of Health and Human Services Bureau of Epidemiology. Special prosecutor Todd Flood told the judge that Miller was aware of a deadly spike in Legionnaires' disease cases in the months following the city's shift to water drawn from the Flint River.

He says Corinne Miller believed that the outbreak was linked to the same improperly treated water that was damaging pipes and leaching lead into the city's drinking water, but she did nothing. A dozen people died from Legionnaires' disease during the outbreak. Prosecutor Flood says half the deaths occurred after Miller and two other state health department officials confirmed the outbreak and suspected the water.

TODD FLOOD: They have notice, and they knew bad things were going to happen. And when those bad things weren't prevented, that, to me, is disturbing. So I said, right in there, they could have prevented it. They could have used tools. They could have put out an alert. They didn't do anything about that, and that's what's in the plea agreement.

CARMODY: Corinne Miller said little in court and declined comment afterward, but she'll be back. As part of her plea deal, she's cooperating with a broader criminal investigation in which seven current and former state employees have been charged with felonies.

Meanwhile, down in Detroit, a federal judge is hearing a lawsuit over Flint residents' access to bottled water. Thousands of Flint residents make daily treks to nine water distribution sites to pick up cases of bottled water. Some live more than two miles from those sites. Activist Melissa Mays says it's an especially hard trip for the one in five Flint residents who don't own a car.

MELISSA MAYS: And then you look at people that are senior citizens. When you have to go carry those cases of water, they're 26 and a half pounds apiece. They can't do that. People who are disabled - what are they supposed to do?

CARMODY: Mays and others want the state to deliver water door-to-door to ensure everyone in Flint has access to bottled water. From Michigan courtrooms to Congress today, where some of the state's politicians wanted to talk about who will pay for Flint's damage pipes. So far, about a hundred pipes connecting homes to city water mains have been replaced. But there may be more than 10,000 still leaching lead into people's tap water.

Michigan gave Flint nearly $30 million for new pipes, but the cost of replacing them all will be much higher. Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow wants Congress to release tens of millions of dollars earmarked for pipe replacement. It's part of a $10 billion piece of legislation funding projects to repair aging municipal water systems across the United States.

DEBBIE STABENOW: We will not give up on the people of Flint until every man, every woman, every child in this city of Flint has the confidence that the water that comes out of their faucet is safe. That should be a basic American right.

(APPLAUSE)

CARMODY: Donald Trump came to Flint today to tour the city's water plant and meet with a few residents. Those residents, like many here in Flint, remain dubious of government claims they can safely drink their tap water if it's properly filtered. For NPR News, I'm Steve Carmody in Flint. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.