Public officials in Michigan are facing manslaughter charges over their alleged failure to act on the water crisis in Flint, where a failure to properly treat water caused the leaching of toxic levels of lead and the sickening of residents. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, has charged five current and former officials with involuntary manslaughter. Their actions allegedly caused the death of at least one person.
According to papers filed in court, Nick Lyon, head of the state Department of Health and Human Services, “deliberately failed to inform the public” about an outbreak of deadly Legionnaires’ disease in 2014. Schuette also alleged that Lyon participated in a cover-up “by repeatedly attempting to prevent an independent researcher from looking into the cause of the outbreak.”
An outbreak of Legionnaires’ killed twelve people, including Robert Skidmore (85). Skidmore is the victim cited in the charges filed in court. At least 70 others were sickened. Lyon and four other officials may face as many as 15 years in prison, if convcited.
The residents of Flint, which is the birthplace of General Motors but has seen decades of decay, crime, and outmigration, have suffered injury that began in April 2014, when the city’s water treatment department switched from water supplied by the city of Detroit to water sourced in the Flint River. A failure to properly treat that water caused toxic lead to leach from pipes into drinking water. Once the contamination of local children was discovered, tests showed that toxic levels of the heavy metal were found in the water. Local, state, and federal officials were found at fault.
However, scientists are seeking to determine whether the city water caused the Legionnaires’ outbreak. Lyon is accused of covering up that link. Other city officials are facing criminal charges for an alleged cover-up.
Legal experts say that filing criminal charges against officials for such negligence is a departure from earlier cases in which officials were merely fired or fined. If the contamination can be shown to have caused deaths, other officials who either ignored or covered up the water crisis may face charges.