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The Flint Water Plant tower is seen in Flint, Michigan, U.S. on February 7, 2016.   Photo by Rebecca Cook/REUTERS

Michigan’s top health official charged with involuntary manslaughter in Flint crisis

The director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services was charged with involuntary manslaughter Wednesday for his role in the Flint water crisis. The felony charge makes Nick Lyon the highest-ranking state official accused of wrongdoing as part of the criminal investigation.

Lyon is charged with exhibiting “gross negligence when he failed to alert the public about the deadly outbreak” of Legionnaires’ disease in the Flint area. The accusation — in the midst of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s Flint water crisis investigation — comes after months of speculation that the outbreak and subsequent deaths were a result of water mismanagement by officials. The investigation began in January 2016.

In 2014, Flint’s water source switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River. As a result, “the corrosive river water created ideal growth conditions for deadly Legionella bacteria,” Scientific American reported.

Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia caused by bacteria that can be caught by inhaling mist mist from contaminated water. In a 17-month period between 2014 and 2015, at least 87 cases of infection were reported in Genesee County, where Flint is located. As of February 2017, 12 people in the Flint area had died of the disease.

“Lyon was aware of Genesee County’s Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak at least by January 28, 2015 and did not notify the public until a year later,” Special Agent Jeff Seipenko alleged in the written charges.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette charged Lyon along with former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, former City of Flint Water Department Manager Howard Croft, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s drinking water chief Liane Shekter-Smith and Water Supervisor Stephen Busch. Lyon also received a second felony charge of misconduct in office. Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells, Lyon’s subordinate, faces a charge of obstruction of justice and lying to police.

Including the charges filed today, 15 current or former public officials have been charged in connection to the attorney general’s investigation of the Flint water crisis.

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