Five Michigan state officials have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a man who contracted a fatal illness from contaminated water in the city of Flint.
Robert Skidmore died in December 2015 from Legionnaires’ disease after local water was contaminated and health officials failed to notify the public. According to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, the 85-year-old was one of at least a dozen Flint-area residents who died of Legionnaires’ disease due to the water contamination.
Schuette said the five officials (plus another facing other charges), failed to notify the public or take action after a move to save the bankrupt city money ended up contaminating Flint’s local water supply.
After researchers discovered that water in Flint was contaminated with dangerous levels of lead, enough to harm children’s developing brains, the crisis became an international story. Lead poisoning is devastating but slow — but the water also carried other contaminants whose effects showed up more quickly, including the bacteria that cause Legionnaires’ disease.
The contaminated water was the result of a decision Flint made in 2014 as a cost-saving measure. The city would stop buying drinking water from Detroit and instead draw water from a new countywide system. But that system wasn't yet fully built. So in April 2014, the city began using treated water from the Flint River as a stopgap.
It turned out the river water was corrosive, and lead from the city’s pipes began leaching into the drinking water. In parts of Flint, the percentage of children with high levels of lead in their blood doubled after the switch.
The corrosive water also caused other problems. Cases of Legionellosis, a respiratory disease spread by bacteria, spiked in the region, likely spread through city water. The bacteria can cause a mild illness, or it can lead to Legionnaires’ disease — a serious illness akin to severe pneumonia.
The situation in Flint became a national scandal after the water crisis played out in plain sight for months while the state refused to acknowledge it. To many people, what unfolded in Flint was a powerful illustration of how politicians ignore the problems and concerns of poor African Americans — even when the politicians caused the problems in the first place.
Attempting to punish those who failed to protect Flint’s residents
Charges against state or city officials in Flint were connected to the Legionnaires' deaths.
Those facing involuntary manslaughter charges are Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, and former City of Flint Water Department Manager Howard Croft, as well as Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Drinking Water Chief Liane Shekter Smith and Water Supervisor Stephen Busch. Involuntary manslaughter is punishable by up to 15 years in prison, and/or a $7,500 fine, says the attorney general.
In addition to the involuntary manslaughter charges, Lyon also has been charged for misconduct in office, and Eden Wells, the chief medical executive for the state, was charged with both obstruction of justice and lying to a peace officer.
These officials charged with involuntary manslaughter on Wednesday were not the first to face criminal repercussions for inaction in the years following the water crisis.
After two separate investigations, one by the state attorney general's office and another by the FBI and Environmental Protection Agency, Schuette has now charged 15 people in relation to Flint’s water problem.
Lyon was reportedly briefed on the contamination in January 2015, shortly after Skidmore’s death, but then failed to alert the public about any such outbreak until nearly a year later, Special Agent Jeff Seipenko said Wednesday, according to WOOD News. He later said he hesitated to disclose the information before the state’s Health and Human Services Department finished its own investigation.
The director of the department, as well as his top spokesperson, resigned in late December. Liane Shekter Smith, who oversaw the DEQ's drinking water unit, was the first person to be fired as a result of the crisis. The regional administrator for the EPA region that includes Michigan also resigned. Corrine Miller, the state’s former director of disease control, was sentenced to probation earlier this year after admitting she was aware of dozens of cases of Legionnaires’ disease and did not act.
Gov. Rick Snyder has defended Lyon and Wells as being “instrumental in Flint’s recovery. They have my full faith and confidence, and will remain on duty at DHHS.” Lyon is the highest-ranking member of Snyder’s administration to be charged for the debacle, the Associated Press reports.
The official actions (or inactions) that led to this moment
The state's Department of Environmental Quality downplayed months of complaints from Flint residents that their water was discolored, smelly, and undrinkable. General Motors stopped using the water in its Flint plant, saying it was too corrosive. But the state didn't think to ask if the water might also be corroding the city's lead pipes.
Even after the city announced the water was briefly contaminated with a different bacteria and, later, chemicals that cause cancer, state officials insisted that nothing was seriously wrong. A leaked report from the federal Environmental Protection Agency warning of lead contamination was dismissed as the work of a "rogue employee." When pediatricians in Flint reported a spike in lead in children's blood, a state referred to it as "data" — with the scare quotes in the original.
The state admitted something was wrong only after scientists from Virginia Tech went to Flint to test the water and found elevated lead levels in 40 percent of homes.
The city switched back to water from Detroit. But the damage was long-lasting. Even with water filters, recent samples found that the city's water has unacceptably high levels of lead.
The series of emergency managers who oversaw Flint as the crisis unfolded are the most directly responsible for using Flint River water in the first place. After the switch, the state Department of Environmental Quality refused to admit that the city's water had serious problems.
It's still not clear how much Michigan's governor knew about the extent of the crisis, or when he knew it. Snyder pushed for the emergency manager law that took decisions out of the hands of Flint's city council. A batch of emails he released last year made clear that his advisers were downplaying the situation.
But whether Snyder purposely turned a blind eye to the situation in Flint or was misled about its severity is still unclear.
Flint’s residents continue to live with resounding environmental problems
Flint, which is 57 percent black and where 42 percent of its 100,000 residents live in poverty, is still reeling from this health crisis. In fact, earlier this year, the state’s Civil Rights Commission issued a 131-page report on the crisis calling it a clear display of systemic racism.
Since the contamination was made public, residents with young children resorted to drinking and preparing food with bottled water because the city cannot guarantee that its tap water, even when filtered, is safe. According to WOOD, water in the area has improved, but people have still been directed to use bottled water or faucet filters until January 2020. That’s the deadline set for corroded lead pipes to be replaced for 18,000 homes.
Meanwhile, Flint residents are still getting some of the highest water bills in Michigan, but there is finally a plan in place to replace the pipes. The city will receive a settlement for at least $97 million in federal and state money to pay for new, lead-free pipes. A federal judge approved the plan to rebuild Flint’s water infrastructure and supporting ongoing health interventions in a lawsuit that sought compensation for widespread lead contamination caused by city officials. The lawsuit was filed last year by a coalition of religious, environmental, and civil rights activists arguing that the water in Flint was unsafe to drink and that state and city officials were in direct violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
“For the first time, there will be an enforceable commitment to get the lead pipes out of the ground,” said Dimple Chaudhary, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement.