Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Jan Lee headshot

Flint Crisis and Environmental Health Liability

By Jan Lee

Now that Flint Mich. (almost) has its water taps changed out, the crisis has moved into a new phase: determining who was ultimately responsible for the deaths of 12 people from Legionnaires' disease. It's a type of pneumonia caused by bacteria and usually occurs from breathing in mist from contaminated water.

It's a complex and emotionally charged issue, and one that isn't likely to be answered quickly. At its core are two questions that are rarely tested in US courts: At what point do state officials become personally responsible for a catastrophic environmental crisis? And, can they really be held accountable for the unfolding events?

Earlier this month, Michigan's Attorney General Bill Schuette's office charged five high-ranking Department of Health officials with voluntary manslaughter. On Tuesday, as if to prove that it was hot on the issue of determining culpability for the deaths,  it released the mug shots of the two highest ranking officials: Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and the department's chief medical executive Eden Wells.

But experts who have weighed in on the case are split as to whether the state will really be able to make the charges stick. And they are also split on whether the state can really go far enough to ensure that this kind of crisis doesn't happen again.

Investigators say that by the time Roger Skidmore, a retired auto worker, had been diagnosed with Legionnaires', the health department should have had enough reason to send out a public health warning for residents not to use the city's water system, which they already knew was contaminated. But instead of acting promptly, investigators say, health officials took steps to cover up the evidence and failed to act in the public's interest.

The most damning evidence may come from the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership that says Wells threatened to withdraw funding unless the agency stopped looking into the cause of the Legionnaires' death. Wells denies the accusations.

Still, the indictments haven't stopped mounting. As of this week, there have been 15 people charged, including state officials close to Gov. Rick Snyder.

Flint deaths: What do previous environmental convictions tell us?

Propublica writer Talia Buford has delved into this question by looking at the country's largest environmental disaster: The 2010 explosion on BP Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, which led to the death of 11 people and a massive environmental disaster that still shows repercussions.

She points out that in many environmental cases where a company is determined to be at the helm at the time of the disaster, "[it’s] common for companies to accept responsibility, in the form of financial penalties, for their employees in environmental disasters."

Although there were three key convictions -- executives David Rainey, who was charged with obstruction of Congress and lying to an investigator; Robert Kaluza; and Donald Vidrine, who were accused of overlooking readouts that spelled a likely disaster -- it was ultimately the company that assumed the guilt. BP agreed to pay $4 billion and plead guilty to felony manslaughter, environmental charges and other crimes. The charges were later dropped  for varying reasons.

In the Flint case, experts point out, it's unlikely that Gov. Snyder's office will "fall on the sword" for members of his health department. He has however, issued a statement saying that they have his "full faith and confidence" and will remain members of the Department of Health and Human Services.

One case in which a conviction was allowed to stand involved a Virginia mining disaster in which the CEO of Massey Energy was found guilty of conspiring to violate mine safety laws. Don Blankenship spent one year in federal prison for permitting environmental conditions that investigators say directly led to the explosion and the death of 29 people.

Although Blankenship has just been released from federal prison, he is appealing to President Trump to overturn his conviction and "get to the truth" of what really caused the horrendous explosion in one of Virginia's worst coal mining disasters. Blankenship feels his conviction was politically motivated. It's yet to be seen if Trump will speak up on his case.

Still, even though he and investigators fundamentally disagree on what caused the explosion, his conviction underpins and important fact: In the eyes of the law it is the boss is that can be considered responsible for conditions that lead to human deaths.

Flint Water Crisis -- Who is responsible?

In the case of the Legionnaires deaths, there's enough evidence to suggest that health officials should have done something when they realized more deaths would be imminent. As investigators inch closer to the governor's office with implications of responsibility, it's just possible, Propublica's Buford points out, that this time, those charged could see prison time. The mood in Michigan is ripe for answers, and few, except for the defendants, are denying that something needed to be done earlier in the crisis.

But it still doesn't address the larger issue that suggests it was environmental pollution and political wrangling that led to the health crisis and Legionnaires outbreak.

Would this crisis have happened if the Flint River had not been allowed to become polluted?  Would officials have been pushed to use a poor water source if the cost of supplying good water supplies had not been so high?

While other countries now recognize the social and ecological benefit of according legal rights to environmental features like rivers and glaciers, the U.S. legal system has not yet connected the dots: protecting the environment with laws that can actually be enforced vigorously in court saves human lives, too.

Flickr images: Flint River - Tony Falola; Letter to Gov. Snyder - Ideowl


Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Read more stories by Jan Lee