Someone may finally be going to jail for allowing tainted water to kill 12 people and make at least 90 others ill in Flint, Michigan.
Prosecutors have charged Michigan's Health and Human Services Department director, Nick Lyon, with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of two men who contracted Legionnaires' disease three years ago after drinking the water. The official could face 35 years in prison, $25,000 in fines, or both.
Robert Skidmore and John Snyder lost their lives due to Lyon's “neglect” and “failure to act appropriately with regarding to disseminating notices to the public,” according to District Court Judge David Goggins. The magistrate, who called the director “corrupt,” issued a ruling on Monday calling for a trial.
Prosecutors accuse Lyon of “failing to alert the public about a Legionnaires' outbreak in Genesee County when he had noticed that another outbreak was foreseeable and ... conducting an investigation of the Legionnaires' outbreak in a grossly negligent manner.”
The defendant admitted he was aware of the men's illnesses a year before authorities notified the public of the health risk associated with drinking the town's water. However, Lyon insisted he is innocent of any wrongdoing, telling The Associated Press that the case “is a long way from over.”
The crisis resulted from a decision by municipal officials in 2014 to save money by using the Flint River as the city's drinking water supply, rather than continue pumping water from Detroit's system. Improper treatment of the river water during the 18 months it was tapped allowed lead to build up in the pipes. Research indicated that the two men's deaths were due to an insufficient amount of chlorine.
Lyon is the highest-ranking official to be charged in the case. Fourteen others have signed plea agreements or are waiting for the courts to act.
It was not until January 2016 that Michigan's Republican governor, Rick Snyder, acknowledged that something was wrong with Flint's water. The New York Times cited emails by state and county officials which indicated that they knew about the threat of Legionnaires' disease as early as March 2015.
CNN described the illness as “a respiratory bacterial infection usually spread through mist that comes from a water source.” Those who contract Legionnaires' disease typically experience fevers, chills and throat irritation.
Lyon's lawyer, John Bursch, defended his client in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. “You heard a lot (about) things that went wrong. They’re not all Director Lyon’s fault. He is not vicariously liable for all 14,000 employees of the Department of Health and Human Services,” the attorney said. “He is not corrupt, and there’s no evidence of that. … To put all the blame at his feet is just ignoring the problems that were inherent in this whole mess.”
Bursch pledged to file an appeal with the Genesee County Circuit Court, asking for a reversal of Goggins' order to put Lyon on trial. The judge predicted that the higher court will affirm his decision due to the amount of evidence prosecutors have compiled.
Lyon has not yet lost his job. The director “has my full faith and confidence, and will remain on duty at DHHS unless convicted of a crime after a full trial by a jury of his peers,” gubernatorial aide Ari Adler tweeted on behalf of Snyder.
Think Progress reported that state Rep. Sheldon Neeley, a Democrat who represents Flint, praised Goggins' ruling as “a meaningful step toward long-awaited justice for the people of Flint and those who lost their lives due to Lyon’s poor leadership.”
Democratic state Sen. Jim Ananich of Flint said during an interview on the local television station that “anyone who played a role in harming my city, no matter who, needs to be held accountable for their actions.” He added that the Health and Human Services director “has the serious responsibility of watching out for the health of all Michiganders, and the reality is that he helped cover up a crisis and lied to an entire poisoned city."
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who has been outspoken in demanding justice for her constituents, told WJRT-TV: “The people of Flint have been traumatized by the actions, or lack of actions, by state officials. This is a good step on the road to recovery and healing for the people of Flint. I hope that the state continues to be held accountable for the state's decisions.”
Michigan Live and The Flint Journal reported earlier this year that the Environmental Protection Agency had not responded to Weaver's plea for federal authorities to put more pressure on Michigan officials. In a letter to the agency, the mayor wrote: “It seems like a repeat of the inaction officials displayed when the water crisis first began. I hope they realize what all is at stake, and the urgency of this situation, and will act soon.”