US prosecutor drops charges, starts over in criminal probe of tainted water

Chicago (AFP) –


US prosecutors have dropped all charges connected to lead contamination of drinking water in Flint, Michigan and pledged to start the criminal probe over from scratch after expressing concerns over how it has been handled by predecessors.

The newly elected top prosecutor in the midwestern state announced the abrupt turnabout on Thursday, saying it was a necessary step for a "comprehensive and complete investigation."

"I want to remind the people of Flint that justice delayed is not always justice denied," Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat who replaced Republican Bill Schuette in the post, said in a statement.

Flint's drinking water was contaminated three years ago, when in a cost-saving effort, officials switched to a more corrosive water source that had not been properly treated to keep old underground water pipes from leaching lead.

The contamination, initially denied by state and local officials, poisoned thousands of children and caused the deaths of 12 people from Legionnaire's disease, according to authorities.

Fifteen government officials had been criminal charged, with seven striking plea agreements. But lingering questions had remained over whether officials close to the former Republican governor Rick Snyder would be ensnared.

Prosecutors under a newly elected Democratic Attorney General said previous investigators had an unusually cozy evidence-sharing relationship with defense lawyers representing various targets of the investigation, including the office of the governor.

"Legitimate criminal prosecutions require complete investigations," said a joint statement by Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kim Worthy.

"Contrary to accepted standards of criminal investigation and prosecution, all available evidence was not pursued."

Prosecutors said they would begin their investigation anew and insisted that the dropping of charges against eight officials awaiting trial did not mean new charges would not be brought.

A community meeting was planned in Flint for June 28 to address residents' questions.

A federal judge in 2017 approved a $97 million settlement requiring the replacement of all lead pipes in the city.