The director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human services returned to court on November 1st; Nick Lyon has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, after a Flint Legionnaires disease outbreak lead to the deaths of 12 people.
He is one part of the water crisis that has placed the city of Flint on headlines worldwide, but arguably one of the most important parts. He is accused of failing to inform the public, and the governor of Michigan, of the outbreak until over a year had passed. However, in his own testimony earlier in October, Mr. Lyon said he spoke to Governor Rick Snyder in December 2015 about the crisis. It is a claim that the Governor denies; in March of 2017, Governor Snyder claimed he’d learned of the Flint Legionnaires disease outbreak in January of 2016.
“the system failed”
Many questions are focused on how this could even happen in the first place. The answer, in simple terms, is that the system that should have protected people failed.
In April 2014, the Flint water crisis began with a switch in the source of the city’s freshwater. Originally Lake Huron, the city officials decided to switch to the Flint River, in an effort to cut costs. By August of 2014, two water boil advisories had been issued for parts of Flint. In October of the same year, the General Motors Flint Truck Assembly discontinued the use of Flint tap water, as it was an unacceptable corrosion risk to engine parts.
What would unfold over the following months and years is often considered a national embarrassment. It is the result of negligence, critics and commentators have said, the favoring of money over the safety of fellow Americans. Tens of thousands of citizens, exposed to elevated levels of lead in drinking water, leading to potential birth defects and brain disorders. Among the affected are up to 12,000 children who may have ingested lead-tainted water. Other horrific effects include shower water that burns skin on contact, regardless of temperature.
The Flint Legionnaires disease outbreak connection to the greater water crisis
The elevated lead content, and the Flint Legionnaires disease cases can be tied to a number of key factors. Some of which were controllable, and others that were not. The city’s lead water piping is quite old, and water passing through it requires chemical treatments to prevent corrosion. Many of the pipes have been in place for decades, with some of the lead pipes over a century old. When the Flint River became the new source of the city’s water, the city failed to ensure that proper water treatment was executed.
The Flint River’s water has been historically considered poor in quality, with numerous hazards present. Among the hazards was fecal coliform bacteria, E-coli, and of course legionella, the same family of bacteria that may cause Legionnaires disease. But Flint officials also potentially made things worse with overuse of chlorine: the byproducts of chlorine have been tied to multiple diseases, most prominently cancer.
Residents of Flint would not be informed of this risk for months, well after the city was officially cited for violations.
Budget concerns and propaganda
As the water crisis grew in scale, as the Flint Legionnaires disease cases spiked through 2014 and 2015, a memo for the governor stated that the water was not a public health threat, a statement that would be roundly proved false. The Flint City Council did vote to change the water supply from the Flint River in March 2015. However, that vote was killed by emergency manager Stephen Ambrose. His primary concern was the estimated $12 million it would cost to revert the April 2014 switch to the Flint River.
As citizens concerns grew, Brad Wurfel, spokesman for Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, came forward to deflect criticism, stating that “anyone concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.” The July 2015 statement did little to actually allay concerns, flying in the face of an internal memo leaked from the EPA about “concerns” in the lead-levels in Flint’s water.
The Flint Legionnaires disease blame game
The issue has placed politicians, city officials, and citizens within eachother’s crosshairs. Democrats and Republicans alike have called for resignations and indictments. Multiple families from Flint have filed lawsuits over the water crisis, including one against McLaren Regional Medical Center, in regards to it’s potential complicity in the Flint Legionnaires disease outbreak. The hospital was accused of hiding information about an outbreak, going back as early as 2013.
However, in February 2017 the CDC released a study that showed a genetic link between the water of Flint, and the Legionnaires disease infections. The infected to went to McLaren could very well have contracted the disease from their own tainted tap or shower water. The matter of whether or not the hospital is a source of the outbreak is now seemingly up in the air.
There are other suspected causes for the outbreak. Traditionally, air conditioning cooling towers are suspects for legionella growth. A recent series of hospitalizations in Queens has New York officials scrambling to check AC systems near where the infected live.
However, Flint health officials had suspected the river water as the cause of the 2014-2015 outbreak. Documentation showed that multiple agencies were aware of an outbreak, and the suspected cause; the public was left uninformed for the better part of a year.
The endgame in sight?
Nick Lyon’s own testimony this month is part of a long, ongoing process, and he is not the only official to be indicted in regards to the water crisis. The charges for those indicted run the gamut: misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, violations of safe drinking water regulations, obstruction of justice, lying to police officers, and involuntary manslaughter. Those standing accused are from multiple organizations that had their hands on the pulse of this crisis. There is evidence that this case could literally reach the top of Michigan politics, with the Governor himself now under suspicion.
Unfortunately for Flint, justice may be as far away as certifiably safe water pipes and drinking water. It is estimated that the overall plan to replace all of the lead-tainted water pipes in Flint will not be done until 2020.