Environment in the news

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Locals and lawyers point the finger at Kentucky coal companies in region’s deadly floods

As eastern Kentuckians continue to search for missing loved ones, muck out their homes and prepare for more rain, they are beginning to ask who could be at fault for this past week’s deadly flooding and whether it was a natural disaster or one caused by the coal mines that have drastically reshaped and scarred the landscape. Compacted dirt, destroyed mountaintops and deforestation in eastern Kentucky have often been left ignored by the coal companies that mined there, despite legal requirements that they attempt to return the land to its natural state when mining concludes. In recent decades, that spurned responsibility has, at times, turned heavy rains into floods and caused local residents who once counted on mining for jobs and prosperity to bring litigation against their former employers in Appalachian courtrooms. About 408,000 Kentuckians live within one mile of abandoned mine land. Kentucky spent a little more than $1.5 million from its reclamation fund. The state is expected to receive an additional $75 million this year as part of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure law, which dedicated $11.3 billion toward abandoned mine reclamation over the next 15 years. The new sum is huge, but “it’s just a drop in the bucket” to address the need for communities across Appalachia, said Sarah Surber, a public health professor at Wayne State University who studied environmental justice issues in the region and practiced law there for more than a decade. “How do you prioritize [the funding]?” she said. “You have so many that have been left abandoned or sitting in limbo, you have more coal mine company bankruptcies anticipated, so how do you decide what mines get reclaimed and what does that mean for communities and their protection in terms of pollution and flooding issues?” 
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Project aims to find new ways to convert river water into drinking water as pollutants evolve

The Great Lakes Water Authority is contracting with Wayne State University to do research at its Waterworks Park treatment plant in Detroit. Inside the facility, there’s a 12,000-to-1 scale model of the water treatment system. It’s large enough for people to work inside and “mimics the operations of this huge full-scale drinking water plant,” said Carol Miller, a civil engineering professor and the director of Wayne State's Healthy Urban Waters Program. The university will use the model to find new ways the plant can convert river water into drinking water. Miller says there are many steps that river water goes through before it gets to your kitchen faucet. Researchers are looking at how impurities are removed in various steps in the process and to better understand how to handle new and emerging contamination threats. “The idea here is that you definitely don’t want to mess with the actual full-scale operating system that is working to deliver drinking water for our region until you’ve tested something out,” Miller said. Our group has been looking very closely at the group of contaminants that are just generally called PFAS compounds. Also, pharmaceuticals and personal care products.” Another key area for the project is workforce development to train people for jobs in the water utility industry. The pilot plant allows them to educate potential employees and students on the operation of the full-scale water treatment plant.  
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Detroit Riverwalkers promote healthy fishing habits

It’s no question that fishing is a revered summer pastime of many Michiganders, and this season has been no exception. The Detroit River is a favorite spot for many anglers, but the high level of pollutants in the water poses a big health concern for those who consume their catch. In response, a group called the Riverwalkers has established a strong presence on the Detroit River to help combat this issue and educate anglers on safe fishing practices. The program is a partnership between the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Wayne State University, with the main goal of educating anglers about the pollutants that exist in popularly caught fish in the Detroit Rivers. Along with the education initiative run by state and local health officials, Wayne State University students and faculty play a large role in testing fish that are caught in the Detroit River to determine the types of and levels of toxins that are present in different fish. Education efforts also include improvements to the signage along the river under the guidance of Donna Kashian, professor and director of environmental science at Wayne State.   
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Wayne State and Great Lakes Water Authority to create workforce and laboratory center of the future

Wayne State University has received a $584,114 contract to develop a collaborative research project with the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) to create a workforce and laboratory center of the future. The three-year long project will focus on developing the existing Waterworks Park Pilot Plant facility to perform applied research, testing and evaluation, and workforce development for new and emerging technologies. Carol J. Miller, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of Healthy Urban Waters at Wayne State will lead the project, along with co-lead Yongli Wager, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State. They and the full support team will provide important knowledge that will help GLWA proactively respond to different water treatment scenarios and emerging water quality concerns. The educational and workforce development programs that also comprise this project will help to address the critical shortage of technicians and engineers for water utilities nationwide. “Our work with GLWA will initiate with a strategic plan to optimize benefits to the GLWA user community, treatment plant operators, the utility industry and the water ecosystem,” said Miller. “In addition, we are working to maximize economic benefits to the community, as well as include workforce training and job opportunities. On the research side, there are several focus areas including verification of scale-up processes, in-plant learning tools and process optimization considering treatment variables including coagulant and disinfectant materials. This training is critical for evaluating water treatment processes and developing scenario-based proactive responses to different water treatment and emerging water quality concerns.”  

Researchers working to reduce micro-plastics in the Great Lakes

Plastic waste may be a bigger problem in the Great Lakes than we realize. Researchers from the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University met in Traverse City on Monday to discuss the impact that micro-plastic pollution has not just on the Great Lakes, but for us. 22 million pounds of plastic go into the Great Lakes every year. As researchers work to lower that number, the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay says the amount of trash in the bay increases every year. The micro-plastics found in the water can also be harmful to our health. “We know historically that micro-plastics, one of the many issues, is that they can carry molecules that can be harmful or toxic to organisms, including people,” said Dr. Rodrigo Fernandez-Valdivia, professor at the Wayne State University School of Medicine. It’s estimated we swallow microscopic plastic materials that add up to a credit card a week. “You can find it in food, as well as beverages, so you don’t know, you’re not aware of it, but you are actually ingesting micro-plastics,” said Fernandez-Valdivia. Single-use plastics seem to be the biggest culprit. “I think probably most people are most familiar with the plastic bags at grocery stores or other types of stores, having your own bag to use, using paper instead – could be a better choice, but it’s also single-use meaning little bags for sandwiches, bottled water,” said Britany Affolter-Caine, executive director of Michigan’s University Research Corridor.  
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Panel: With infrastructure funding available, communities need to ‘use it smartly’

Researchers from the University Research Corridor (URC) with local officials Monday to discuss ways to address the storm-related home flooding experienced in Detroit and other southeast Michigan cities, months after the second “500 year rain event” in seven years left thousands in the region with drowned basements and downed power lines. Experts from the University Research Corridor gathered on the Wayne State University campus to present research on updating outdated infrastructure to make communities more resilient in the face of extreme weather events that are exacerbated by climate change. “The problem is that we’re impoverishing people that are already at the edge of poverty in a series of Detroit communities,” said Lyke Thompson, director of Wayne State’s Center for Urban Studies. The URC works with industries like infrastructure, water, and mobility.  “We know that water always wins, as it has the time and energy to find the paths of least resistance, which are often our basements or other infrastructure,” said William Shuster, chair of the Wayne State University civil and environmental engineering department. “We need to respond to the way that water plays this game and give it other options.” The money for necessary large-scale infrastructure repair is available to Michigan and should be used to mitigate future impacts of severe weather, according to Britany Affolter-Caine, executive director of the URC. “We are in a unique time in where we’re getting a ton of money and communities are sort of staring down at an influx of infrastructure dollars and COVID dollars,” said Affolter-Caine. “…We have to use it smartly.”  

New sources sought for rare earth elements to stop reliance on China

By Lily Bohlke  Michigan researchers have received a $3.1 million grant to study potential new sources of rare earth metals and how to process them. Rare earth metals are a set of 17 elements found in the earth’s crust, and are a key component of many high-tech processes from military technology to electronic devices, batteries for electric cars and magnets in wind turbines. The U.S. relies on China for 80% of our rare earth metals, and the prices have spiked over the last year. The lead researchers for the project are Matthew Allen, chair and professor of chemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Timothy Dittrich, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering at Wayne State University. “After we recover the rare earth elements, instead of just putting them in a hazardous-waste landfill, we’re also looking at ways to use those for building materials and other uses so that we don’t have these other problems that we’re creating as we’re recovering rare earth elements,” said Dittrich. 
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Wayne State receives $3.1 million grant to seek alternative sources of rare earth elements

A multidisciplinary team of researchers at Wayne State University have been awarded a $3.1 million grant from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ERCD program to seek alternative sources of rare earth elements critical to advanced military and consumer technologies. The project, Rare Earths from U.S. Extractions – or REUSE – will focus on both basic and related applied research in science and engineering with the goal of developing a U.S. rare earth element supply chain as well as a process of handling waste streams. REUSE is led by two principal investigators, Matthew J. Allen, chair and professor of chemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Timothy M. Dittrich, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering.    

Fast food burgers, fries, and pizza may leave you full of phthalates

By Huanjia Zhang   As Americans devour a fast-food burger in the car or gobble up a chicken burrito in front of the TV, some may bite into phthalates, according to a new study in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology. This is the first study to directly measure the amount of phthalates present in common fast foods in the U.S. and adds to mounting evidence linking phthalate exposure to fast food consumption. Phthalates are a group of synthetic chemicals widely used to make plastic more flexible, and are ubiquitous in a host of plastic products, ranging from toys to personal care products. Phthalates have been shown in human and animal studies to disrupt the endocrine system. Although the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of eight phthalates in children’s toys and child-care products in 2017, the plastic industry is able to replace the prohibited phthalates with slightly tweaked plasticizer chemicals. “A chemical isn’t a problem until it’s proven dangerous,” said Douglas Ruden, a toxicologist who studies phthalates at Wayne State University, who noted the ongoing tug-of-war between scientists trying to assess the health and safety of potentially harmful new plasticizers and their evolving successors. 
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How the 1% tricks you into thinking climate change is your fault

Africa has 54 countries, more than one-quarter of the 195 nations on the planet today. The continent is also home to roughly 1.3 billion souls, more than one-sixth of the human population. And despite comprising a large chunk of the community of Homo sapiens, however, Africa is responsible for less than four percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Life being unfair, that isn't going to spare Africans from suffering as a result of man-made global warming. A recent study revealed that Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda and the Mount Kenya massif in Kenya are going to lose their glaciers — the only ones on the entire continent. Losing these iconic natural landmarks isn't the worst thing that will happen to Africa because of climate change — there will be extreme weather events, rising sea levels, economic devastation and more — but there is a melancholy symbolism to their impending disappearance. Climate change isn't a problem caused by all people equally; it is caused mostly by the rich, and since we live in a capitalist world, the suffering will fall disproportionately on the poor. Climate scientists, sociologists and economists are largely in agreement on this point. "The problem is structural and systemic," Dr. David Fasenfest, an American sociologist and associate professor at Wayne State University, told Salon by email. "Capitalist society is geared towards waste and destruction in order to promote consumption while producing at the lowest cost. That requires power and that means without strict restrictions most of the time we use 'dirty' forms of energy like coal that pollutes and promotes climate change." 

Detroit confronting an infrastructure challenge

By Ari Shapiro  Before the month is up, the House is expected to vote on the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. There's funding to improve the electrical grid, provide internet access for rural areas and much more. And the widespread need for these funds is already clear and present. Each day this week, we will hear from people and communities who are experiencing the frequent, if not daily, obstacles of failing infrastructure that this bill hopes to address. Our co-host Ari Shapiro starts our coverage in Detroit, Mich., where the city is confronting a challenge that will only get worse as the planet keeps heating up. ARI SHAPIRO: The sentiment goes beyond just the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood. Professor Carol Miller of Wayne State University in Detroit has been studying water infrastructure for decades, and she tells me people used to ask her about contaminants, whether the local fish they caught were safe to eat. But these days... CAROL MILLER: The questions that are being asked at dinners and out with friends is a - questions relating to flooding - like, why is this happening? Why is it that disadvantaged people in the city have to go into their basements several times a year to pump out, or pail out, sewage that has gathered in the basement from a storm?SHAPIRO: And when somebody at that dinner party says - so is this big infrastructure bill going to make a difference? - what do you tell them? MILLER: I would tell them it should, that there's tons of money that look like it's going to be heading in that direction - so it should. I'd say it all depends on the people that are making those decisions. 
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Product developed by Wayne State professor touted to be safer for marine life

After spending weeks and months in the water, the bottom of a boat can become a slimy mess, as algae and other marine organisms coat the hull. Biofouling, the accumulation of algae, barnacles and other marine organisms on underwater surfaces like the hulls of boats and ships, can slow down vessels and increase fuel consumption by as much as 40%, at a cost of $36 billion for the global shipping industry. It costs recreational boaters more in fuel, as well, because of the drag added to the boat. That’s why many boaters — recreational owners and commercial shippers — use a bottom paint containing an anti-foulant. More than 90% of current anti-foulants in the market rely on copper as a biocide, however. The heavy metal is designed to leach out of the paint while it is in the water, creating a toxic environment to deter wildlife from attaching to the hull, but it is also an endocrine disrupter that affects the life cycles of fish, according to Sheu-Jane Gallagher, one of the three co-founders and general manager of Repela Tech, a startup out of Wayne State University. A new technology developed in a lab at Wayne State University is being used in an attempt to change that, however. “Repela is all about sustainability, and what we are developing is a sustainable technology for boaters,” Gallagher said. Zhiqiang Cao, Ph.D., a professor of chemical engineering and materials science in Wayne State University’s College of Engineering, invented the underlying technology for the product and approached Gallagher and Edward Kim, the third co-founder of the company, about promoting and marketing marine applications for the technology.
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Historic floods fuel misery, rage in Detroit

City officials have repeatedly pointed to climate change as the main culprit in last month’s flood, when Detroit was overwhelmed by as much as 8 inches of rain in less than 19 hours. Weather stations in and around Detroit set records for the most amount of rainfall within a 24-hour period during the storm, according to the National Weather Service. Thousands of basements were flooded, causing widespread damage and prompting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare a state of emergency. The White House has since issued a disaster declaration, freeing up federal funds. The storms offer a foreboding glimpse of Detroit’s new reality in a warming world: flooding intensified by high water levels on Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes. And the floods have also churned up debate about the management of Detroit’s aging flood-control system and whether officials are taking steps to harden the system against what’s becoming a regular drumbeat of record-setting storms. Lyke Thompson, a professor of political science and director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University, agreed. “The people in the city that are better off live in neighborhoods that have better infrastructure for removing the water from the neighborhood,” Thompson said. “And whites left the city in droves decades ago, so most of the city of Detroit is occupied by people of color. So, if the city has a problem, they have a problem. And the city has a problem.” Detroit’s outer suburbs, he said, are on higher ground with newer infrastructure, while lower-lying neighborhoods experience flooding and leaks on a regular basis. Those same houses, he said, are getting “whammy after whammy because we’re having repeated 100-year floods, and the residents can’t cope with it.” Thompson and other researchers have documented those trends in a study that found recurrent residential flooding in Detroit is far more prevalent than previously thought, disproportionately affects Black residents and may contribute to a greater incidence of asthma. Of the 6,000 homes in Detroit surveyed, researchers found almost 43% had experienced flooding, and neighborhoods like Jefferson Chalmers are especially vulnerable.
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Great Lakes algae threaten air quality

Toxins from harmful algal blooms, such as those looming in Lake Erie off Monroe County shores, are well-known as water polluters, but now researchers are looking at how they harm Great Lakes air. And that could have implications for human health, they say. Algae blooms occur because of a warming climate and nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from activities like agriculture, said Judy Westrick, a chemistry professor at Wayne State University. In the Great Lakes region, algal blooms occur in inland lakes and the western basin of Lake Erie, primarily in shallow water, Westrick said. Research focuses on water quality because of observations, Westrick said. When people became sick after swimming in toxic water, scientists began researching it. However, now that water quality is better understood, scientists are branching out into understanding algae toxins and air, Westrick said. “You’re probably going to see, in probably the next year, like 100 studies on aerosol,” Westrick said. “Aerosol has become a big thing because of a couple of factors.” Those factors are part of climate change, she said. For example, heavy rainfall can cause waves and break up harmful algae, releasing particles that could be toxic in the air. The expert consensus is algae blooms will get worse as climate change and runoff worsen, Westrick said. Algae essentially eat nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients from agricultural runoff. “If you take care of the nutrients and you don’t have the nutrient load, then then they won’t get worse, but if everything stayed the same, the nutrient load, and it just gets warmer, we expect them to go longer,” Westrick said.
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Researchers study how algal bloom toxins may harm Great Lakes air

Toxins from harmful algal blooms are well-known as water polluters, but now researchers are looking at how they harm Great Lakes air. Algae blooms occur because of a warming climate and nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from activities like agriculture, said Judy Westrick, a chemistry professor at Wayne State University. In the Great Lakes region, algal blooms occur in inland lakes and the western basin of Lake Erie, primarily in shallow water, Westrick said. Research focuses on water quality because of observations, she said. When people became sick after swimming in toxic water, scientists began researching it. However, now that water quality is better understood, scientists are branching out into understanding algae toxins and air, Westrick said. “You’re probably going to see, in probably the next year, like 100 studies on aerosol. Aerosol has become a big thing because of a couple of factors.” The factors are part of climate change, she said. For example, heavy rainfall can cause waves and break up harmful algae, releasing particles that could be toxic in the air. The expert consensus is algae blooms will get worse as climate change and runoff worsen, Westrick said. Algae essentially eat nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients from agricultural runoff. “If you take care of the nutrients and you don’t have the nutrient load, then then they won’t get worse, but if everything stayed the same, the nutrient load, and it just gets warmer, we expect them to go longer,” Westrick said.
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It's deja vu all over again for metro Detroit flood victims despite past promises

Repeated flooding has plagued homeowners in cities across the region in recent years, with Detroit, the Grosse Pointes and Dearborn getting hit hardest in last weekend's latest round. After each event, government officials offer similar reasonings for the breakdowns: historic rainfall stressed aging infrastructure beyond its capacity. Investigations are launched, lawsuits filed and promises are made. But this time some are hopeful it’s a wake-up call that will force solutions that stick. "Everybody is exhausted," said William Shuster, chair of Wayne State University's Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and an expert in storm and wastewater management who himself lost a vehicle to the weekend flooding. "This is an equal opportunity disruptor, destroyer of health, property and morale." Shuster said the extreme rainfall was exacerbated by already saturated soil Friday night. In southeastern Michigan, combined sewer systems are the norm, which means storm runoff combines with sewage, often overwhelming water treatment facilities in periods of heavy rain. "It’s hard to tell if the (all) pumps were operating if it would have made a difference," Shuster said. "What we have are unpredictable rainfall events and this converges with undersized infrastructure. That’s why it’s so pronounced."
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Flooding has become all too common in Southeast Michigan, but aging infrastructure remains the same

Across Southeast Michigan, communities are reeling from the destruction caused by severe storms over the weekend. Images of flooded basements and cars submerged in water under freeway underpasses served as a reminder of Detroit’s poorly adapted infrastructure to increased instances of environmental disasters. Bill Shuster is professor and chair of the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Wayne State University. He says the storms that devastated Southeast Michigan over the weekend become more of a threat each year, but the aging infrastructure remains the same. “The burden just keeps getting larger and larger each time. It’s really about social and political will to make sure resources are available.” Shuster says fixing the state’s water infrastructure is doable from an engineering standpoint, but dependent on the resources given to communities by the government. “For any type of engineering design, we need the appropriate data to do this. This is not impossible, it’s not rocket science.” Shuster says improving infrastructure equitably in Southeast Michigan takes comprehension of its communities, and, “the way that we understand how water runs through American communities … so that we can then design the sustainability and resilience.” He says responding to climate change in infrastructure will take every aspect of environmental engineering, while arguably pulling in social work as well. “We’re training engineers for the future to take on these issues and we’re in the position of we need to pull together investment, infrastructure dollars that are guided by good data that’s translated by good contemporary engineering practice.”
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Here's what metro Detroit residents dealing with the flood aftermath should know

Detroit was inundated with flooding this weekend and many are still recovering from the aftermath. Roads were flooded, cars were abandoned on freeways and basements were damaged — leaving residents devastated by what was lost and cannot be replaced. Your basement is flooded. Now what? First things first, local and statewide agencies have made it clear that residents should stay out of flood water, both in the streets and inside their houses. It can contain dangerous bacteria, sewage, oils and debris. If you do come in contact with it, make sure to wash up after, according to MDHHS. Be careful when inspecting the damage in your basement. Wear rubber boots that are only dedicated to flood cleanup when entering the water to avoid spreading bacteria, said Carol Miller, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State University. "Unfortunately there are many people with recurrent flooding," she said. "If you've had flooding, it's likely going to happen again and the best thing to do is to have a special set of rubber boots that you keep near the basement and you only use it when you're exposed to that floodwater." Power outages during flooding results in an increase in exposure to carbon monoxide,  an odorless, colorless and deadly gas. The CDC and Michigan Poison Center are warning people to never turn on generators, pressure washers or other gasoline, propane, natural gas, wood or charcoal devices inside your home or near an open window or door, as they produce hazardous levels of carbon monoxide. "People exposed to carbon monoxide may feel as if they have a cold or the flu," stated the warning issued by the Michigan Poison Center at the Wayne State University School of Medicine. "Flooding shouldn't be occurring in the first place and as an engineer, I would certainly be the first to say that there are engineering approaches that, when used in a sound fashion, can prevent this sort of flooding," Miller said. Multiple options are explored in detail in a recent study conducted by Wayne State University and the University of Michigan on household flooding in Detroit. Miller added that residents affected should develop a community or network of homeowners or renters in the area to pressure local government to "pay attention to these infrastructure problems."
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Is winter miserable for wildlife

Bridget B. Baker, clinical veterinarian and deputy director of the Warrior Aquatic, Translational, and Environmental Research (WATER) Lab at Wayne State University, wrote an earlier article for The Conversation which has been republished by Yahoo News. “While the weather outside may indeed get frightful this winter, a parka, knit hat, wool socks, insulated boots and maybe a roaring fire make things bearable for people who live in cold climates. But what about all the wildlife out there? Won’t they be freezing? Anyone who’s walked their dog when temperatures are frigid knows that canines will shiver and favor a cold paw – which partly explains the boom in the pet clothing industry. But chipmunks and cardinals don’t get fashionable coats or booties. In fact, wildlife can succumb to frostbite and hypothermia, just like people and pets. In the northern United States, the unfurred tails of opossums are a common casualty of cold exposure. Every so often an unusual cold snap in Florida results in iguanas falling from trees and manatees dying from cold stress. Avoiding the cold is important for preserving life or limb (or, in the opossum’s case, tail) and the opportunity to reproduce. 
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Former prosecutor and journalist weigh in on the significance of Flint water crisis charges

Noah Hall, a professor of law at Wayne State University, served as special assistant attorney general for the initial investigation of state officials regarding the water crisis. He said he felt the investigation he was part of had made promising progress in court, so when Nessel’s team announced they would shut down existing cases and start anew, he was frustrated and skeptical. But now, he says, he knows he was wrong. “It looks today like my skepticism was not justified and Attorney General Nessel came through on what she promised, which was, when she shut down our investigation and terminated us — myself included — she really was building back a better investigation that was going to do more work and go even further with developing charges. And it looks like that’s exactly what’s happened over the past two years,” Hall said. Snyder faces two misdemeanor charges of willful neglect of duty, for which he has pleaded not guilty. But other former officials face more serious charges, including former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director Nick Lyon and the state’s former Chief Medical Officer Dr. Eden Wells, who have both been charged with nine felony counts of involuntary manslaughter. Hall says these new charges likely draw on decisions the Snyder Administration made back in 2012 and 2013, which set in motion the changes in Flint’s water supply that led to use of the Flint River with a lack of corrosion control. Some critics of the recent charges argue that government leaders and public servants, due to the nature of their jobs, should be permitted some benefit of the doubt, as they may have been using their best judgment to make decisions with the information that was available to them at the time. But Hall says that’s not what he thinks happened in the Flint water crisis, based on his knowledge from the initial investigation. “This was not a simple case of government officials doing the best they could and making a mistake. Quite the opposite,” he said. “These were government officials who intended to advance an agenda, and in advancing that agenda, threatened and ultimately harmed human life.”