Michigan

Flint water crisis: 5, including Michigan health chief, charged with involuntary manslaughter

The head of the Michigan health department is among the 5 people charged Wednesday with involuntary manslaughter in an investigation of Flint’s lead-contaminated water. All are blamed in the death of an 85-year-old man who had Legionnaires’ disease.

Nick Lyon, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, is the highest-ranking member of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration to be snagged in a criminal investigation of how Flint’s water system became poisoned in 2014.

He’s 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 2014-2015. If convicted, Lyon could face up to 15 years in prison.

“The health crisis in Flint has created a trust crisis for Michigan government, exposing a serious lack of confidence in leaders who accept responsibility and solve problems,” Attorney General Bill Schuette told reporters.

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

The others are people who were already facing charges. They are: Darnell Earley, who was Flint's emergency manager when the city used the river; Howard Croft, who ran Flint's public works department; Liane Shekter Smith; and Stephen Busch. Shekter Smith and Busch were state environmental regulators.

Lyon, Croft, Earley, Shekter Smith and Busch are blamed in the death of Robert Skidmore in December 2015.

The state's chief medical officer, Dr. Eden Wells, was charged Wednesday with obstruction of justice and lying to an investigator.

“Dr. Wells vehemently denies the charges,” defense attorney Jerry Lax said.

Flint started using water from the Flint River to save money in 2014 but it wasn’t treated to reduce corrosion. Lead from old plumbing leached into the water system.

Legionnaires’ is a type of pneumonia caused by bacteria that thrive in warm water and infect the lungs. People can get sick if they inhale mist or vapor, typically from cooling systems.

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

The investigation led by Schuette and Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton has already led to charges against 13 current or former government officials, including two city emergency managers appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder.

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 willful neglect of duty. She is a key cooperating witness for Schuette's team.