Nick Lyon, the head of the Michigan state health department, and four other high-ranking Michigan officials were charged by the Michigan attorney-general with involuntary manslaughter on Wednesday for their failure to maintain a safe water supply in Flint, Michigan.
The lead-tainted water supply in Flint caused pervasive lead poisoning among Flint children and was connected with Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks that killed at least twelve. Legionnaires’ disease is a form of bacterial pneumonia caused by inhaling water vapor which contains Legionella bacteria.
In addition to Lyon, officials charged with involuntary manslaughter include former Flint water manager Howard Croft, former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Early, and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality members Stephen Busch and Liane Shekter-Smith. All of these officials have previously faced less serious charges for their connection to the Flint water crisis. Lyon was also charged with misconduct in office, a felony. Dr. Eden Wells, the chief medical officer of Michigan, faces charges for obstruction of justice and lying to a police officer, but has not been charged with manslaughter.
In his charging report, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said these officials had failed to properly inform the public of the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak, and of the possibility that other outbreaks could occur. Schuette stated that Lyon had “willfully disregarded the deadly nature” of the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, which resulted in the death of Flint citizens.
The Flint water crisis began in April of 2014, when Flint switched water sources from Detroit to the Flint River, partially as a cost-saving measure. Residents immediately complained that the water from the Flint River looked, tasted, and smelled unclean, and that it caused hair loss, rashes, and other health complaints. However, Flint government officials continued to insist that the water was safe, ignoring studies that showed high levels of lead in the water and signs of lead poisoning among Flint children, until September 25, 2015. It was then that Gov. Rick Snyder first publicly acknowledged that the water contained high lead levels.
Afterwards, the situation quickly escalated – Flint switched its water supply back to Detroit and declared a state of emergency. City, state, and federal agencies coordinated emergency response efforts, distributing bottled water and water filters and providing emergency care to victims of Legionnaires’ disease and lead poisoning. By January, the lead content of Flint water had decreased to a level deemed safe by federal regulations. However, the city’s lead-tainted pipes still need to be replaced. In March, the Detroit Free Press reported that Flint officials predict that it will be at least two years until Flint tap water is safe to drink without a filter. Until then, residents will continue to be forced to rely on bottled water and water filters.
The Women’s Law Center has argued that the Flint water crisis constitutes a feminist and racial justice issue. 57 percent of Flint residents are black and 42 percent are impoverished. What’s more, high lead levels are especially dangerous to children, pregnant women, and fetuses. Thus, the lead-tainted water in Flint has disproportionately affected people of color, people living below the poverty line, women, and children.
Media Resources: Interim Report of the Flint Water Crisis Investigation from the Michigan Attorney General’s Office; Huffington Post 6/14/17; Detroit Free Press 4/9/17; Washington Post 6/14/17, New York Times 6/14/17; Associated Press 4/20/16; National Public Radio 4/20/16; Detroit News 3/7/17; Women’s Law Center 1/28/16