Michigan’s top public health official will keep his job despite being charged with involuntary manslaughter today for allegedly failing to alert the public about a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Flint in 2015.
Department of Health and Human Services director Nick Lyon was also charged with misconduct in office for allegedly telling his staff to stop an analysis that could have determined the cause of the outbreak. Lyon faces up to 20 years in prison if he’s found guilty on all charges.
Four other officials — state water supervisor Stephen Busch, former Flint Department of Public Works director Howard Croft, former Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley, and former state environmental official Liane Shekter-Smith — were also charged with involuntary manslaughter. Eden Wells, the state’s Chief Medical Executive, was charged with obstruction of justice and lying to a police officer.
“Nick Lyon has been a strong leader at the Department of Health and Human Services for the past several years and remains completely committed to Flint's recovery,” Michigan Governor Rick Snyder told The Outline in a statement. “Some state employees were charged over a year ago and have been suspended from work since that time. They still have not had their day in court. That is not justice for Flint nor for those who have been charged. Director Lyon and Dr. Wells have been and continue to be instrumental in Flint's recovery. They have my full faith and confidence, and will remain on duty at DHHS.”
Snyder signed a law this week barring employees convicted of certain crimes from receiving retirement benefits, but it doesn’t apply to any of the employees charged as a result of the water crisis, MLive reported. The law only applies to employees convicted of misuse of public funds or the receipt of a bribe or financial benefit, Snyder’s press secretary said.
Flint residents and local activists are pleased with the charges, though some have expressed concern that Lyon and Wells are allowed to keep their jobs despite still-contaminated water and ongoing service shutdowns. Despite the charges, many Flint residents haven’t had clean water in nearly four years.
“There just aren’t words to how big of a punch in the stomach this is for Flint residents,” Flint resident and local activist Melissa Mays said of Snyder’s announcement. “I expected nothing less from Governor Snyder, because it’s obvious that Flint residents do not come first.”
The city began sourcing its water supply from the polluted Flint River in April 2014, leading to dangerous levels of lead in the water supply and causing a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak. The manslaughter charges brought against Lyon and other officials stem from the death of Robert Skidmore, who died of Legionnaires’ disease, a deadly form of pneumonia, in December 2015.
“Defendant Lyon was aware of Genesee County’s Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at least by Jan. 28 2015 and did not notify the public until a year later,” charging documents obtained by the Detroit Free Press say.
Seventy-eight Flint residents contracted Legionnaires’ disease during a 17-month period between 2014 and 2015, the Free Press reported, leading to the death of 12 residents. People typically contract the illness by breathing in small water droplets contaminated by Legionella bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its symptoms are similar to pneumonia and include high fever, vomiting, diarrhea, chest pain, and shortness of breath. It can also lead to respiratory failure, kidney failure, and septic shock.
“The families of Flint have been exposed to a tragic health and safety crisis for the past three years,” Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said before announcing the charges brought against Lyon and four other officials at a Wednesday press conference.
“Many families still drink, cook, and bathe only with bottled water. The health crisis in Flint has created a trust crisis in the Michigan government.”
“Children in Flint have been exposed to lead poisoning, and the community has experienced an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, causing the deaths of numerous people,” he continued. “Many families still drink, cook, and bathe only with bottled water. The health crisis in Flint has created a trust crisis in the Michigan government.”
Federal officials determined last June that the city’s tap water was safe to drink if point-of-use filters were installed, but researchers from the Flint Area Community Health and Environmental Partnership said in December that the free filters provided to residents could increase the bacteria in the city’s water, despite lowering lead levels.
“As it gets hotter, bacteria tends to grow faster. There’s not enough chlorine to kill the bacteria. I’ve had two bacterial infections this year so far; our water is just not safe,” Mays said.