READ: Will Officials Charged With Flint Water Crimes Really Do Time?

By Yessenia Funes Jun 20, 2017

The city of Flint, Michigan, continues to reel from the water crisis that has left the predominantly Black city of nearly 100,000 dealing with serious lead contamination. Less than a week after Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced involuntary manslaughter charges against five state officials, ProPublica takes a look at whether they will actually serve time behind bars. 

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ director, Nick Lyon, is among those facing serious charges—one for felony misconduct in office and another for the involuntary manslaughter of 85-year-old Robert Skidmore. Skidmore died in 2015 during an outbreak of Legionaries’ disease that was caused by the city’s dangerous, cost-motivated switch from water out of Detroit to Flint River water that officials failed to properly treat.

Previous cases from around the world suggest that officials won’t serve time:

In 2012, an official from Italy’s Civil Protection Department was convicted of manslaughter—and eventually given a two-year suspended sentence—for downplaying the risks from earthquakes in L’Aquila a week before one killed more than 300 people. And in 2010, the mayor of La Faute-sur-Mer, a village in western France, was given a two-year suspended sentence for manslaughter after Cyclone Xynthia caused flooding that killed 29 residents who had built their homes in a zone where officials should have barred construction.

The Justice Department (DOJ) could not readily say how many individuals here in the United States have been convicted for environmental crimes. But after consulting with experts, news archives and academic reviews, ProPublica found that convictions related to deaths tend to hinge on a more direct line of responsibility. Take Richard Smith, pilot of the Staten Island Ferry in 2003. He passed out at the helm of the 3,000-ton boat after taking painkillers, causing a crash that killed 11 people. Smith served 15 months in prison; his supervisor was sentenced to a year and a day for failing to enforce a rule that required two pilots to be in the wheelhouse as the boat docked.

But causing deaths by doing nothing to stop them?

In these kinds of environmental disaster prosecutions, convictions and prison time have proven elusive.

The cases in Flint are different than others in the United States that the piece covers. For one, they’re not against a corporation. “If there are individuals in the crosshairs of government prosecution, there’s a pretty strong inducement for the company to kind of, take the wrath,” said Scott Fulton, a former EPA official and former assistant chief in the DOJ’s environmental enforcement unit told ProPublica. “There’s a dynamic where the company, out of desire to protect its people, will be willing to take a guilty plea as a means of accomplishing that.”

In Flint, there’s no company to take the hit. There are just government officials, including Gov. Rick Snyder, whom residents want to see investigated for his role in the crisis. Schuette, who is leading the overall investigation, recently said in a press conference that he hasn’t yet been able to conduct a proper interview with the governor.

Read the full ProPublica investigation here.