It was a crisis that shocked the nation and enraged people from across the world. Flint, Michigan’s water was bad, some officials knew … and no one did a thing as kids turned up sick and sicker. At least one person has died.
Now, the Associated Press is reporting that five people, including the top official in Michigan’s health department, have been charged with involuntary manslaughter. The charges stem from the death of an 85-year-old man who had Legionnaires’ disease.
The official, Nick Lyon, is the highest-ranking state official to be charged in the criminal investigation into what happened and why it happened. Law enforcement officials accuse Lyon of failing to communicate with residents of Flint that the water was unsafe to drink. As a result, many contracted Legionnaires’ disease. This is a form of pneumonia caused by specific bacteria that thrive in contaminated water. Lyon faces up to 15 years in prison.
The trouble started after Flint city officials decided to tap into the toxic Flint River to supply water to the city. Turns out, the water was unsafe. As to who knew that and when, details are unclear, but they are being revealed as part of the ongoing investigation.
Michigan State Attorney Bill Schuette left no questions about where he stood on the issue:
“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…”
Trust crisis is one way to describe this public relations nightmare. One of the reasons Lyon is being charged has to do with alleged obstruction of university researchers trying to determine if the illnesses were linked to the water in Flint. So, in other words, law enforcement not only believes Lyon knew about the problem but that he also actively worked to cover it up. And he’s not the only one. Also being charged with involuntary manslaughter are Flint’s emergency manager, Darnell Earley; Flint’s Public Works Director, Howard Croft; and environmental regulators, Liane Shekter Smith, and Stephen Busch.
Michigan chief medical officer, Dr. Eden Wells has also been charged with obstruction of justice and lying to investigators. Wells’ attorney, of course, says his client “vehemently denies” the charges.
Attorneys for some of the other defendants are claiming they have no idea why their clients might be charged in this case. That might play well in court, but it’s not likely to win any friends in the public. Each of these officials, even if they are acquitted, face serious PR consequences… at the very least.