'Absolutely shameful': Michigan judge drops Flint water crisis charges against 7 officials
The Flint Water Plant tower is seen in Flint, Michigan, U.S. on February 7, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/File Photo

A Michigan judge on Tuesday dropped felony criminal charges against seven former officials in connection to the 2014 Flint water crisis that poisoned thousands of people and killed dozens.

Genesee County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Kelly's decision stems from a Michigan Supreme Court ruling in June that deemed state prosecutors' use of a one-man grand jury to issue indictments legally improper, throwing into doubt efforts to hold ex-officials accountable for a water disaster that has had lasting impacts on Flint residents.

"The threat of lead contamination is not over, as we've seen from recent monitoring showing rising lead levels in the city's drinking water."

"Because the one-person grand jury does not have the power to issue indictments, the indictments issued in the felony Flint water cases were void ab initio," Kelly wrote. "Therefore, anything arising out of the invalid indictments [is] irreconcilably tainted from inception."

In the eight years since the start of the crisis, which was sparked by a cost-cutting decision to switch the city's water supply to the Flint River without adequate testing and treatment, a number of Michigan officials—including the state's former Republican governor—have been charged with crimes, but none of the charges have held.

Among the officials who had charges dropped Tuesday were former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Director Nick Lyon and former MDHHS medical executive Eden Wells, both of whom faced nine counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, has been accused of botching efforts to punish officials responsible for the mass lead poisoning and Legionnaires' epidemic in Flint. Charlie LeDuff, a columnist for The Detroit News, explained last month that "instead of holding preliminary examinations, Nessel's office used a one-man grand jury to charge former Gov. Rick Snyder with willful neglect—a misdemeanor—as well as recharging several others with a new round of indictments of manslaughter and misconduct."

"Nessel's team argues that while the Supreme Court ruled a one-man grand jury may not issue indictments, his findings can still be used to seek a warrant," LeDuff continued. "Despite assurances from Nessel's office claiming things are moving forward, people in the legal world know time is running out... Evidence has grown cold and memories have grown dark. The statute of limitations is creeping up, depending on the person and the charges. So it's worth saying again. It's doubtful anyone goes to prison."

In a statement responding to Kelly's decision, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud, and the Flint Water Prosecution Team vowed to "review" the ruling and "continue its pursuit of justice for Flint."

"Though it may be of little comfort," the officials said, "the people of Flint have always had on their side a dedicated team of lawyers and advocates committed to justice and with the sincere belief that what happened to the people of Flint is a crime."

The latest indication that justice for Flint residents won't be forthcoming any time soon was met with outrage. Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator, called the decision to drop charges against the seven ex-officials "unjust" and "absolutely shameful."

Journalist Jordan Chariton, who has covered the Flint case closely, also expressed dismay on social media:

As prosecutors fail to punish officials involved in the 2014 crisis and the high-level attempts to cover it up, Flint is struggling to replace its remaining lead pipes.

"The city of Flint has conducted lead service line replacement work at only about a dozen homes in 2022. It is an unacceptable performance by our elected officials," Melissa Mays, operations manager of the advocacy coalition Flint Rising, said in a statement late last month.

"The threat of lead contamination is not over, as we've seen from recent monitoring showing rising lead levels in the city's drinking water," Mays added. "As the state of Michigan approaches the milestone of removing all of [Benton Harbor's] lead pipes, a move supported by advocates and concerned citizens in Flint, we ask: Why not Flint?"