Thursday 23 January 2020

Michigan health chief charged in Flint water probe

Nick Lyon has been charged with involuntary manslaughter (David Eggert/AP)
Nick Lyon has been charged with involuntary manslaughter (David Eggert/AP)
Lead from old plumbing leached into Flint's water system

The head of the Michigan health department has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, the highest-ranking member of governor Rick Snyder's administration to be caught up in a criminal investigation of Flint's lead-contaminated water.

Nick Lyon is accused of failing to alert the public about an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in the Flint area, which has been linked by some experts to poor water quality in 2014-15.

If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison.

Lyon is also charged with misconduct in office for allegedly obstructing university researchers who are studying if the surge in cases is linked to the Flint River.

The state's chief medical officer, Dr Eden Wells, is accused of obstruction of justice and lying to an investigator.

Lyon's failure to act resulted in the death of at least one person, 85-year-old Robert Skidmore, special agent Jeff Seipenko told a judge.

The charges were read in court by Mr Seipenko, a member of the state attorney general's team.

Lyon and Wells were not in court.

Flint began using water from the Flint River in 2014 while under state emergency management, but did not treat it to reduce corrosion.

Lead from old plumbing leached into the water system.

Some experts have also linked the water to Legionnaires' disease, a type of pneumonia caused by bacteria that thrive in warm water and infect the lungs.

People can become sick if they inhale mist or vapour, typically from cooling systems.

There were nearly 100 cases in the Flint area, including 12 deaths, in 2014 and 2015.

Lyon was personally briefed in January 2015 but "took no action to alert the public of a deadly" outbreak until nearly a year later, Mr Seipenko said.

Lyon has admitted that he was aware of the Legionnaires' outbreak for months but wanted to wait until investigators in the state health and human services department finished their own probe.

He told state politicians that experts probably wanted to "solve the problem" before they raised it with senior officials in the Snyder administration.

The investigation, he said, "wasn't one that was easily solved".

Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette has now charged 15 current or former government officials in an ongoing probe that began in early 2016, including two emergency managers whom Mr Snyder appointed to run the impoverished city of roughly 100,000 residents.

In May, Mr Schuette dropped a misdemeanour charge against a Flint official who co-operated after pleading no contest to wilful neglect of duty.

In March, Corrine Miller - the state's former director of disease control - was sentenced to probation and ordered to write an apology to residents after pleading no contest to wilful neglect of duty.

Mr Seipenko said Wells told an investigator that she had no knowledge of the outbreak until late September or early October 2015.

"This was clearly a false statement," he said, saying she knew as early as March 2015.


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