Ex-state governor charged in Flint water crisis

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Washington (AFP)

Ex-governor Rick Snyder was among former officials in the US state of Michigan charged over the Flint water crisis, a health scandal that came to symbolize social injustice in America, authorities said Thursday.

Prosecutors allege Snyder willfully neglected his duty to protect the residents of the decaying industrial city that switched its drinking water source to the polluted Flint River to cut costs in 2014.

Officials failed to add corrosion controls to the new tap water source, allowing lead and other contaminants to leach from the city's aging pipe system.

Twelve people died in an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease after the switch, though authorities initially dismissed complaints from residents in the majority-Black city where many live below the poverty line.

"The people of Flint continue to suffer from the categorical failure of public officials at all levels of government who trampled upon their trust and evaded accountability for far too long," state solicitor general Fadwa Hammoud told a press conference.

Snyder, who was among nine former officials charged, pleaded not guilty Thursday to two misdemeanor charges. He faces up to a year in jail on each count if convicted.

The former director of the state health department, Nicolas Lyon, was charged with nine counts of involuntary manslaughter, which each carry up to 15 years in prison.

Eden Wells, ex-executive of state medical services, was also hit with nine charges of involuntary manslaughter and an allegation of willful neglect of duty.

Hammoud said ex-health official Nancy Peeler misrepresented "data related to elevated blood lead levels of children in the city of Flint" and has been accused of misconduct.

Three former local officials and two from Snyder's team were also charged.

Authorities now say Flint's water meets federal safety guidelines, outperforming comparable cities.

However, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it is safe to wash hands and bathe with unfiltered water, but urges against cooking or brushing teeth with it. Like the state, the EPA also urges use of a filter.

The US state of Michigan has agreed to pay some $600 million to victims of the crisis.

Most of the money is earmarked for children in the city of Flint, who were at greatest risk of neurological and physical harm from lead-tainted tap water.

More than 8,000 children are believed to have consumed lead-contaminated water, and a study found that the proportion of infants and children with high lead levels doubled after the water source switch.