Transcript

Flint’s Deadly Water

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DAYNE WALLING, Mayor, City of Flint, 2009-15:

There is nothing more valuable than water.

DAYNE WALLING:

And Michigan is blessed to be surrounded by more fresh water than anywhere else on the planet.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

They’re calling it the dawn of a new era: miles of pipeline transporting fresh water to three counties and two cities. But officials say it's bringing much more than—

NARRATOR:

The idea was to turn all that water into money.

DAYNE WALLING:

A new pipeline could bring economic opportunity; could create regional cooperation; and it could be, you know, an affordable, healthy source of water for our city long-term.

NARRATOR:

The proposed pipeline was supposed to carry low-cost, high-quality water from Lake Huron to businesses and homes throughout eastern Michigan, including the city of Flint.

MALE NEWSREADER:

The $274 million project should be completed in early 2016.

DAYNE WALLING:

And it was a way for this community to take advantage of the natural resources that it's surrounded by, and that could give, you know, our region a competitive advantage.

NARRATOR:

Instead, the pipeline set in motion a series of events that led to an unprecedented public health crisis in Flint.

MALE NEWSREADER:

It’s not safe to drink the water in Flint, Michigan.

NARRATOR:

The exposure of thousands of children to lead-tainted water would become a national outrage.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Water has been poisoned with lead for months—

DAYNE WALLING:

I think about this every single day, and I still try to figure out what I could have seen or done or asked, you know, differently.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Nearly a thousand homes still have dangerous levels of lead in the water—

DAYNE WALLING:

But I just didn't ever imagine that there would be a failure at every level of government with something as basic as the safety of drinking water.

NARRATOR:

And overshadowed by the lead poisoning was another problem with the water.

ERIC MAYS, Flint city councilman:

Most people outside of Flint look at the lead issue as the main issue, but the killer has been Legionnaires', and people don't know that.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Two more deaths have been linked to the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak—

ERIC MAYS:

That was the one that I think they tried to hide the most. That's the one I still don't think that they want people outside of Flint to know.

NARRATOR:

In Flint, they still line up for bottled water.

JACQUELINE McBRIDE, Jassmine's mother:

Oh my gosh, are you serious?

NARRATOR:

Jacqui McBride started coming here after her daughter got sick with Legionnaires' disease, a severe and potentially deadly form of pneumonia.

JACQUELINE McBRIDE:

I don’t want the same thing to happen to me. I refuse to drink from the faucet.

Oooh, J. You shoulda been here a long time ago.

MALE VOLUNTEER:

Come on up, come on up!

FEMALE VOLUNTEER:

Hey there!

MALE VOLUNTEER:

Move it up.

NARRATOR:

The Legionnaires' outbreak hasn’t received much attention outside of Flint, despite being one of the largest in U.S. history.

But FRONTLINE has been investigating the outbreak and how state and local officials failed to stop it.

For the past two years, producers Abby Ellis and Kayla Ruble have been reporting in Flint.

KAYLA RUBLE:

One, two, three cases of Legionnaires'—

ABBY ELLIS:

And they’re a couple blocks from each other.

NARRATOR:

With their colleague, reporter Jacob Carah, the team reviewed thousands of pages of health records and government documents; spent months following the legal effort to hold people accountable; and interviewed local officials, residents, infectious disease specialists and others to trace the story of the deadly outbreak, which began more than a year before the world even knew there was a water crisis in Flint.

The outbreak started in June 2014, when the first known patient showed up at a local hospital.

He was 54 years old, suffering from what appeared to be pneumonia.

JANET STOUT, Ph.D., Special Pathogens Laboratory, Pittsburgh:

So for that particular patient, going to the hospital as soon as they had, you know, high fever, cough, diarrhea—you know, they know that something's really wrong.

They order a special diagnostic test, which isn’t routinely done, and then they know it's Legionnaires' disease, and it's now sort of a race against time to save that patient.

NARRATOR:

Janet Stout is one of the nation’s foremost Legionnaires' specialists and advised officials in Flint on how to respond to the disease, which is caused by inhaling water droplets contaminated with bacteria.

JANET STOUT:

What's distinctive about Legionnaires' disease is its severity. Almost all cases are admitted to the intensive care unit.

The other thing that's unique about Legionella—Legionella bacteria—is that it's in water. So if you can control the organism in water, you can completely prevent the disease.

NARRATOR:

Three days later, another man was diagnosed with Legionnaires' at a hospital in Flint.

In the week that followed, three more cases, at three different hospitals, were reported to the state and county health departments.

JANET STOUT:

Because it's a reportable disease, going to one centralized location, which is state and county reporting, the people receiving—at the health department receiving this are going, "I've not seen five cases in four weeks, ever." So now you start to see a pattern. This is not normal.

NARRATOR:

By midsummer, more than a dozen Legionnaires' cases had been confirmed—as many as Genesee County would typically see in a year.

But most people in Flint knew nothing about the growing outbreak, including Jacqui McBride, whose daughter Jassmine was its youngest known victim.

JACQUELINE McBRIDE:

I walked into that room, all I see is this machine; these tubes; my daughter laying there stiff—you know, just stiff.

The doctor asked, he said, "Have you heard of Legionnaire?" And I'm like, "No. What the hell is that?"

NARRATOR:

Jassmine was 26 and had diabetes, which made her vulnerable.

She was admitted to the intensive care unit.

JACQUELINE McBRIDE:

The first doctor kept saying, "Well, we don’t know if she’s going to make it or not." I didn’t want to hear that.

I think the same day she was there somebody had passed, maybe next to her, and had the same thing she had: Legionnaires'.

NARRATOR:

Scientists we’ve spoken to who have examined the Legionnaires' outbreak point to a fateful decision, months before Jassmine got sick, to switch Flint’s water to a new source.

June 28, 2013

JEFF WRIGHT, Genesee County drain commissioner:

The first dirt turned for the pipeline, ladies and gentlemen!

MALE NEWSREADER:

Crews break ground on the Karegnondi water pipeline—

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Seventy-four miles of large-diameter pipeline will stretch—

NARRATOR:

For decades, Flint—one of the poorest cities in America—had bought its water from Detroit.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

The pipeline is expected to cost about $230 million—

NARRATOR:

Water from the proposed pipeline was supposed to be cheaper—

JEFF WRIGHT:

Thank you, Mr. Councilman, and the rest of the council, and I'm here—

NARRATOR:

—a point the county’s top water official stressed when he came to Flint.

JEFF WRIGHT:

Once it's completed, there will be several million-dollar cost reduction to all of the communities involved, and that's where—

I saw a great opportunity for this poor community to save money. They would have a savings of $2 million their first year from what they were spending just to purchase water.

MALE CITY COUNCILLOR:

—on file so that we can begin the committee work—

NARRATOR:

Flint's city council eventually backed the plan, but officially they had little say, because at the time the nearly bankrupt city's finances were controlled by the state, which went ahead and approved the pipeline.

ERIC MAYS:

And so we didn't have control of the water, the decisions, nothing.

NARRATOR:

To help finance it all, Flint’s state-appointed managers had another plan.

MALE NEWSREADER:

It has been five decades since Flint used the river for drinking water. Today, they open up the gates to start that process again.

NARRATOR:

Instead of staying on the Detroit water supply while the pipeline was being built, the city would temporarily get its water from the Flint River.

MALE NEWSREADER:

—until a new water pipeline is finished from Lake Huron.

NARRATOR:

That decision, without a vote from the city council, would force the city to activate an old water treatment plant that had barely been used in half a century.

DAYNE WALLING:

I certainly still expected that the same safeguards would be in place no matter what the drinking water source was.

NARRATOR:

But inside the plant, we’ve learned that a foreman named Matt McFarland was having concerns.

TONJA PETRELLA:

He said, "We're not ready." He said the plant wasn't ready. The funding just wasn't there; the staffing wasn't there. There was a lot that would need to be done, and it would take time.

NARRATOR:

McFarland died in 2016, but while working at the water plant he regularly confided in his sister Tonja Petrella. This is the first time she’s spoken publicly about her brother’s concerns.

TONJA PETRELLA:

He would call me and he would just be so upset. And he would leave me messages that were just frantic, like, "Tonja, you have to call me right away. Please call me right away.”

I mean, he knew that they weren’t ready for this.

NARRATOR:

As the deadline approached, McFarland expressed his concerns to his supervisors. One of them, Mike Glasgow, had concerns, too. He wouldn’t speak to us, but in an email he told state regulators that if the plant were to open on schedule, “it will be against my direction.”

He later told investigators he never received a response.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

The city right now is just testing and treating this water; they’re not using it in the drinking water yet. They hope to start doing that in the next few days—

NARRATOR:

With the opening of the plant just hours away, Petrella began texting friends, at her brother’s behest, that the water wasn’t safe.

TONJA PETRELLA:

I remember specifically the day before they actually flipped the switch. He called me and he said, "Tonja, contact everyone that you know in Flint, anybody you care about, and tell them, 'Do not drink the water.'"

DAYNE WALLING:

Here’s our moment!

CROWD:

3, 2, 1—

TONJA PETRELLA:

He said, "It's not safe. We're not ready," he said, "and people are going to die."

April 25, 2014

DAYNE WALLING:

Here’s to Flint!

CROWD:

Here’s to Flint! Hear, hear!

NARRATOR:

Within weeks, the problems McFarland had been worried about began to appear.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Flint is now getting its water from the Flint River. It’s not sitting well with some residents and businesses—

FEMALE FLINT RESIDENT:

And this is what is coming out of the tap.

MALE FLINT RESIDENT:

Water’s brown, has a bad odor.

RON FONGER, The Flint Journal:

I was covering Flint City Hall at the time. It was a regular sight; every week someone was bringing in a bottle of water that was discolored.

ERIC MAYS:

People were telling me as a councilperson that they was breaking out with rashes.

FEMALE FLINT RESIDENT:

We cannot drink the water, we can’t cook with the water, let alone brush our teeth.

ERIC MAYS:

That was real quick after the switch, some of those signs.

FEMALE NEWSREADER

The city says residents won’t notice a change in quality.

RON FONGER:

And the message we keep getting back over and over and over again is just, "It's really not anything to worry about."

MALE NEWSREADER:

Flint city officials say drinking water from the Flint River is now safe to drink for the entire city.

RON FONGER:

It was, “Not a problem, not a problem, not a problem.”

NARRATOR:

But what most of Flint didn’t know at the time was that the state hadn’t required the plant to protect the city’s water pipes from corrosion.

They soon became a breeding ground for Legionella. And people were getting sick.

Throughout the summer of 2014, cases of Legionnaires' disease kept appearing, reaching over 30 by the fall.

PAUL KILGORE, M.P.H., M.D., Epidemiologist, Wayne State University:

By October of 2014, there would have been enough information to really understand that there was a significant problem in Flint.

That would be considered a large outbreak, and that would be an investigation that we'd want to do right away.

NARRATOR:

The county health department had started looking into the problem. And in emails, state officials were already speculating that Flint’s new water supply may be to blame—and worrying that word might get out.

JANET STOUT:

Everybody that knows anything about Legionnaires' disease knows it's in the water. So you go and test the water, and then you disinfect the water. That's what's been done virtually everywhere else, except in Flint.

NARRATOR:

No one from the state health department would be interviewed on camera, but a spokeswoman told us the outbreak could not be definitively connected to the water because, she acknowledged, the water was never tested.

By the end of 2014, there were 40 confirmed cases of Legionnaires', and three people had died.

Jassmine McBride had been lucky: After three months in the hospital, she was able to go home.

JASSMINE McBRIDE:

When I got out, I had to learn how to walk, talk, eat; I mean, it was just like being reborn all over again.

MARCUS ZERVOS, M.D., Infectious diseases, Henry Ford Hospital:

The oxygen, you’re on that all the time, or do you ever get to take it—?

JASSMINE McBRIDE:

Sometimes I take it off just to see myself, but I’m on it all the time.

MARCUS ZERVOS:

Yeah.

NARRATOR:

Her battle with Legionnaires' left her heart and lungs weakened; her kidneys were severely damaged. When we met her in 2018, she needed a transplant but wasn’t healthy enough to be eligible for one.

MARCUS ZERVOS:

You just had dialysis just now, right? Your lungs are clear. They’ve cleared out the fluid.

NARRATOR:

Her doctor, Marcus Zervos, had been treating a chronic skin infection that her weakened immune system couldn’t control.

MARCUS ZERVOS:

My goal with you is to try to get those wounds healed up so that you can get your transplant.

What we’re doing with this is tissue grafting. I’m really happy with them; they’re doing a lot better.

JASSMINE McBRIDE:

I’m ecstatic.

MARCUS ZERVOS:

You know, if I can get them healed over a little bit more I'm going to get you an appointment with those transplant doctors.

NARRATOR:

While Jassmine was recovering back in early 2015, the head of Michigan’s health department, Nick Lyon, met with one of his epidemiologists and was shown this graph of the Legionnaires' outbreak. The epidemiologist noted that it coincided with the switch of the water supply.

Lyon asked to be kept informed.

FEMALE NEWSCASTER:

Neighbors in Flint joined together today to rally against the city's treatment of the water—

NARRATOR:

Residents were still unaware of the outbreak.

MALE NEWSCASTER:

City officials say the water is safe and there's no need to worry.

NARRATOR:

But at the suggestion of the state health department, county officials drafted an alert to medical providers. It was never sent, according to internal emails, because the person in charge wasn’t there that day. Instead, just 15 people were notified by email.

No one in the county or state health departments would explain why the alert never went out.

LAWRENCE REYNOLDS, M.D., CEO, Mott Children's Health Center, Flint, 2008-16:

It's totally unacceptable. There was no notification sent to the medical society. So that—I'm trying not to be profane, but that's utter rubbish.

NARRATOR:

Around the same time, county health officials, trying to confirm if the water was the source of the outbreak, reached out to Dr. Stout.

JANET STOUT:

And I said, "Call the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. They will come, they will do the testing that needs to be done."

And I thought, "Done.”

NARRATOR:

Emails show the county health department wrote to the CDC right away, saying they were now up to 47 cases of Legionnaires’ disease and needed help.

But state health officials had a very different response. They told the CDC they didn’t need its help; if they did, they’d get in touch.

The CDC persisted, saying they felt a sense of urgency. It was one of the largest outbreaks in years, they said, and they recommended a full investigation.

JACOB CARAH, Reporter, FRONTLINE:

Looking through the emails and starting to see how things were evolving, that kind of resource on the ground, boots on the ground, particularly helping the Genesee County Health Department, which was understaffed at the time, would have been a game changer for the Legionella outbreak.

NARRATOR:

But the call to the CDC never came, even as more top officials became aware of the problem.

Though Gov. Rick Snyder would insist he didn’t know about the outbreak until 2016, emails show that by March 2015 at least three of his aides and two of his Cabinet members had been told about it.

And into the summer it continued: three cases in May; seven more in June; 13 in July; 13 in August.

JANET STOUT:

Tick, tick, tick. Case after case after case. There's another one; there's another one; there's another one.

NARRATOR:

There’d been 90 confirmed cases in the year and a half following the water switch; 12 people had died.

PAUL KILGORE:

It is a very big epidemic; one of the largest epidemics of Legionnaires' disease that we know of.

LAWRENCE REYNOLDS:

We heard rumors that there were outbreaks of Legionella that we could not confirm and we weren't getting any communication from our county health department. Definitely no information from the state department. They were strangely silent.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Developing now, a public health emergency has been—

MALE NEWSREADER:

—people in Flint being told not to drink out of the tap, at all.

NARRATOR:

But once high lead levels in the water system became public in late 2015, state officials had to confront the fact that the water switch was having grave consequences.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Levels of lead in kids' blood has risen since the switch—

ERIC MAYS:

I think that really was a pivotal point where people paid attention to a community that just used common sense and knew water shouldn't be brown and rusty-looking.

MALE NEWSREADER:

State officials say their testing shows lead in the water—

NARRATOR:

With the crisis building, the governor ordered the city to stop using the Flint River and return to Detroit water. Within months, Snyder and his top officials would address the Legionnaires' outbreak.

An aide to the governor called an environmental engineering professor at Wayne State University.

SHAWN McELMURRY, Ph.D., Wayne State University:

He said that the governor was about to go on stage to announce a Legionnaires' disease outbreak and he wanted to know whether or not I could determine if the change in water supply was the cause of the Legionnaires' disease. And I basically told him that I thought I could pull together a team to look at this but that I would have to make some calls.

And he said, "No, no, no. The governor's going on in like 15 minutes. I need an answer in 15 minutes."

GOV. RICK SNYDER, (R) Michigan, 2011-19:

Well, thank you for coming today.

January 13, 2016

GOV. RICK SNYDER:

I'm going to share information that has been shared with the health care community in the past but hasn't really been put out to the public. Over the course of 2014 and 2015, we saw a spike in Legionnaires' disease. I believe the numbers for the preceding years, before 2014, we had six cases, 11 cases, 13 cases, and eight cases. In 2014, we had 45 cases. And then in 2015, there were 42 cases.

RON FONGER:

I'd been writing about Flint water for more than a year, and I never heard anything about Legionnaires' disease until the governor went on TV that day.

NICK LYON, Michigan health director, 2014-19:

Thank you.

NARRATOR:

The Republican governor was joined by the state’s top health officials: Nick Lyon, and the chief medical executive, Dr. Eden Wells.

EDEN WELLS:

Most of the time, what it's gonna manifest as is as a pneumonia. This pneumonia would not—

JANET STOUT:

They say, "We can't conclude that the water was the source of Legionnaires' disease in this outbreak."

NICK LYON:

MDHHS cannot conclude that this increase is related to the water switch due to the lack of clinical isolates during the time period, and because not all of the cases had exposure to the city of Flint water.

JANET STOUT:

Well, let's ask the question: What would be necessary in order to make that link? They should have tested the water.

NICK LYON:

This is part of our efforts to be transparent and share information as quickly as possible as we can with the public.

NARRATOR:

At the press conference, no one mentioned that the CDC had urged a full investigation eight months earlier.

MALE NEWSREADER:

This is certainly a bombshell, a game changer—

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

There was an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that quite frankly none of us knew about—

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

This was just shocking, because we found out about a totally different disease and deaths.

NARRATOR:

Within weeks, Michigan’s Republican attorney general announced he was appointing a special counsel to lead a criminal investigation into the water crisis.

BILL SCHUETTE, Michigan attorney general, 2011-19:

I’m announcing today that Todd Flood, a tough, former Wayne County prosecutor, will be joining me and working with me in an investigation to determine what Michigan laws, if any, may have been broken in the Flint water crisis.

TODD FLOOD, Special counsel, Flint water investigation:

People got sick, terribly so, and the water was contaminated, and the public was in an outcry.

I have never seen a case like this in the history of the United States before.

There needs to be an answer, where people understand and can hold accountable those, if any, who are at fault.

We didn’t know if there was criminality or not. It’s always about who knew what and when, and what did they do about it.

You take your evidence and you follow that evidence down the path.

NARRATOR:

As the criminal investigation was getting underway, the scientific investigation into the Legionnaires’ outbreak was also getting organized.

SHAWN McELMURRY:

We started meeting with the state regularly. And when we first started meeting with them, they were very collegial and it was pretty much, "We will open the keys to anything if it can help understand this."

NARRATOR:

Shawn McElmurry had pulled together a team of 23 scientists and experts from around the state.

SHAWN McELMURRY:

We were all focused on making sure that we didn't have another outbreak, another season outbreak. And so there was a lot of pressure to get this done by the time summer started.

NARRATOR:

But as the months went by, the team says the state wouldn’t authorize them to start the search for the source of the outbreak. Dr. Zervos was the infectious disease expert, and he was worried about the delay.

MARCUS ZERVOS:

It was critical to start right away because by June we expected to see more cases of Legionnaires' disease and there would be more deaths, which is what we expressed in a meeting that included top leadership at MDHHS.

NARRATOR:

The scientists say they met with Nick Lyon to urge him to step up surveillance for Legionnaires’ cases.

SHAWN McELMURRY:

I remember I wrote my colleague, telling him that if he didn't do that, you know, people could die.

Unfortunately, Nick Lyon's response was that, "Well, they have to die of something."

MARCUS ZERVOS:

I was—you know, I was flabbergasted, and I didn't say anything right then. Although it was a situation where you're just—I mean, you're just in shock as a result of him saying that; the director of the health department.

NARRATOR:

Nick Lyon declined to be interviewed. In a letter, his attorney said, “Director Lyon did not make that crass remark.” He said the team’s work was one of Lyon’s top priorities and blamed any delays on the scientists.

Special Prosecutor Todd Flood was also clashing with state officials as his investigation began turning up evidence of misconduct and negligence—and an effort within the government to cover up the water crisis.

TODD FLOOD:

Every single witness had a paid-for attorney by the government. Whether or not you were a suspect or a defendant or a witness. Every single one had a government paid-for attorney. So we were going up against Goliath.

A lot of people didn't want us to expose what was happening and why it was happening.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Breaking news right now from Flint, Michigan. We've been following this all day long. The state's attorney general—

NARRATOR:

By the end of July 2016, Flood had charged nine state and local officials with crimes related to the lead and Legionnaires' crises, including conspiracy, misconduct, neglect of duty and tampering with evidence.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Today three men face the very first criminal charges in connection with the Flint water crisis.

TODD FLOOD:

We were starting very low, and we worked out plea deals with most of them to cooperate and move up the chain.

NARRATOR:

As the criminal investigation continued, behind the scenes, the team of scientists who were supposed to be investigating the outbreak was running up against resistance.

SHAWN McELMURRY:

As we kept meeting with state officials, there was increasing pushback about the extent of data we would have access to, and more constraints being, in our view, put on the scientific investigation.

MARCUS ZERVOS:

We were not allowed, for example, to talk to patients that had Legionnaires' disease. We were not allowed to go into the homes of patients that had Legionnaires' disease, which was really a very big, very serious limitation.

NARRATOR:

They clashed with Dr. Eden Wells over testing residents’ water filters for evidence of bacteria.

SHAWN McELMURRY:

This turned out to be a really contentious issue with the state. They didn't want me to collect those filters because they thought it might just cause more—it might scare people more than it would provide valuable information.

MARCUS ZERVOS:

At one point I felt personally that it might even be impossible to be able to objectively do the project.

NARRATOR:

They also felt it was critical to examine pneumonia deaths during the water crisis, in case any had been misdiagnosed.

SHAWN McELMURRY:

So there's some cases of Legionnaires' disease that are not necessarily diagnosed as Legionnaires' disease, but just diagnosed as pneumonia.

ABBY ELLIS:

OK, so did you guys look into pneumonia deaths?

SHAWN McELMURRY:

Ultimately, that was one thing that we weren't allowed access to. It was deemed as beyond the scope of what they wanted us to look into.

But as time went on I came to realize that maybe their interest in understanding things wasn't the same as my interest in understanding things and that there were potential liabilities to the state and to the people I was talking with.

NARRATOR:

Dr. Wells declined to comment. Nick Lyon’s attorney denied the health department had blocked the scientists’ requests and told us Lyon was simply trying to ensure the state was "funding necessary and appropriate research."

With the scientists and state at odds, FRONTLINE was doing the pneumonia research that McElmurry and his colleagues were seeking.

JACOB CARAH:

I kind of tasked myself to kind of just start looking through the electronic death record system at the clerk's office, because the only place to start, the only evidence you can find is pneumonia deaths. So I started looking in the time frame of the switch to the Flint River.

MALE POLICE OFFICER:

I recognize you. You've been here before, right?

JACOB CARAH:

Yeah.

MALE POLICE OFFICER:

Cool. Thank you, you're all set.

JACOB CARAH:

Thank you.

NARRATOR:

Over several months, FRONTLINE reporters analyzed every death record in the county during a seven-year period, looking for people whose cause of death had been listed as pneumonia.

JACOB CARAH:

You have to go through every single death certificate one by one because there was really no other way to do it; you can’t go digging up bodies and, you know, doing antigen tests on bones.

I started just going through just the time frame of the switch, and I started counting the pneumonia deaths that I found.

I thought I was crazy when I was looking at it, because I kept finding more, not less.

NARRATOR:

The state had put the death toll from the Legionnaires' outbreak that ran from 2014 to 2015 at 12 people. But FRONTLINE found dozens who were said to have died of pneumonia in the same period.

JACOB CARAH:

There was this spike during the switch. It was almost three times more than prior years.

NARRATOR:

As McElmurry and his team feared, there were signs the outbreak’s toll could be higher than anyone knew.

JACOB CARAH:

Why wasn't a thorough investigation launched from the state? I mean, this raises some very critical questions, if you knew at the time that people were dying.

NARRATOR:

We would spend many months in Flint trying to find the true extent of the Legionnaires’ outbreak.

But by late 2016, McElmurry and the other scientists had begun testing the water and getting results back.

SHAWN McELMURRY:

It didn't take us too long to start finding Legionella in some of the water entering people's homes.

NARRATOR:

Believing they should share their findings with the public, the scientists held a meeting at a local library and said they'd found Legionella and other bacteria in people’s water filters.

The next day, Shawn McElmurry heard from Rich Baird, a top aide to Gov. Snyder.

SHAWN McELMURRY:

I was under no illusion that every time I talk to Rich Baird, it was as if I was talking to the governor. And he said, well, he wasn't upset at my guy, but he wasn't on message. He needed to be on message. He needed to “lead with public health,” whatever that meant, and basically said that, you know, he didn't want to take away funding from the university if I wasn't able to get on message.

I viewed that as just a threat to me and my team about the work we were doing; that we needed to better align our results with what their position was.

ABBY ELLIS:

And what did you understand that position to be?

SHAWN McELMURRY:

That there were no more problems in the water in Flint at that time.

NARRATOR:

In an email, Baird told us that he never tried to influence or pressure the team to do anything except abide by the terms and conditions of their contract; and that they failed to stay within the scope and parameters of the project.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Just up today in the criminal investigation into the Flint water crisis, five—

NARRATOR:

By 2017, the allegations of misconduct had reached inside the governor’s cabinet.

MALE NEWSREADER:

In a startling revelation in court, documents from the state attorney general allegedly say—

NARRATOR:

Nick Lyon and Eden Wells were now facing involuntary manslaughter charges for failing to alert the public and covering up the Legionnaires' outbreak.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

The department's chief medical executive, Dr. Eden Wells, accused of threatening to stop funding for—

MALE NEWSREADER:

The allegations are Health Director Nick Lyon knew more than a year before this announcement—

TODD FLOOD:

Nick Lyon is presumed innocent, but it was plain as day that the Department of Health and Human Services state epidemiologist, along with others, had talked to the director about the Legionella outbreak.

We're saying he had a duty to tell the people. He failed to do that duty. He then kept things under wrap. The spike was continuing to go up, and sure enough, in the summer of 2015, multiple people got sick and multiple people died.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Andy, these charges all center around the deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak—

NARRATOR:

Prosecutors also accused Lyon and Wells of interfering with Shawn McElmurry’s investigation.

McElmurry and other scientists were subpoenaed to testify about it during pretrial hearings.

TODD FLOOD:

The crux of their testimony came down to, "We were stopped or prevented, because they didn't want to know the truth. The government, they didn't want us to find Legionella. They didn't want us to find bacteria. They didn't want us to test samples. They didn't want us to collect from filters in homes."

Why? Why? Because they didn't want them to show that the water was the actual source of the Legionella.

NARRATOR:

Throughout, the state health department insisted that the biggest source of the Legionnaires’ outbreak was not the city’s water, but Flint’s McLaren Hospital, which it said was linked to nearly 60% of the cases.

NOAH HALL, Prosecutor, Flint water investigation:

First of all, not every case of Legionnaires’ disease came out of McLaren.

And second of all, if the state believed that there was a Legionnaires' outbreak in McLaren Hospital, the state had every duty to do something about it and inform people about it.

That's not what the state did.

NARRATOR:

McLaren officials declined to be interviewed, citing ongoing lawsuits by Legionnaires' victims, but pointed out that the hospital gets its water from the city.

They hired Dr. Stout to provide testimony and to help them test for and prevent Legionella.

JANET STOUT:

Somewhere around 30 or so percent of cases had absolutely no health care association. That means they were never, not only at McLaren, but never at any of the other hospitals, either. So the argument that the problem is the hospital doesn't hold weight.

NARRATOR:

Shawn McElmurry and his team came to the same conclusion, and in early 2018, published their findings in a peer-reviewed journal.

SHAWN McELMURRY:

The outbreak is associated with the change in the water supply. When they switch to the Flint River, they didn't properly treat the water.

And as it went through the distribution system, they also had reactions and things that—with corroding pipes. And so there are pockets of the city where you had high amounts of iron, low chlorine, high organic matter. And in those places it is very likely they had biological growth. So there's all sorts of indicators that there was massive water-quality problems throughout the time in which they were on the Flint River.

NARRATOR:

The state health department publicly rejected the paper, saying in a statement the scientists had “only added to the public confusion” and that an outside consulting firm the state hired was critical of their work.

Nick Lyon’s attorney went even further in a letter to FRONTLINE, questioning the credibility and expertise of the team.

The state eventually released its own report insisting there was “only one common source” for most of the cases: McLaren Hospital.

As for Jassmine McBride, by the summer of 2018, just shy of her 30th birthday, she was still suffering from the effects of the Legionnaires' disease.

JASSMINE McBRIDE:

Twenty-eighth of July. Celebrating my 30th birthday; seeing that I was supposed to be gone in 2014 due to the Legionnaires', so.

MALE DOCTOR:

OK.

JASSMINE McBRIDE:

And I just want to be around family and friends.

MALE DOCTOR:

That’s good. Are you just here for some paperwork?

JASSMINE McBRIDE:

Well, yeah, but when I leave here I’m going to the hospital.

MALE DOCTOR:

OK.

JASSMINE McBRIDE:

I'm having some trouble breathing.

NARRATOR:

She was on 24-hour-a-day oxygen, suffering frequent respiratory failure.

JASSMINE McBRIDE:

I'm about to pass out.

FEMALE DOCTOR:

Do you need something?

JASSMINE McBRIDE:

This is what I go through when I’m having trouble breathing. It’s like I can’t—I can barely talk; I can barely function; I can barely walk.

It's a scary feeling.

NARRATOR:

On this day, she was taken to the hospital for emergency dialysis. But because of her condition, she was no closer to getting on the kidney transplant list.

JASSMINE McBRIDE:

This is so—

This is not where I wanted to be.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Nick Lyon faces involuntary manslaughter charges in connection with the deaths of two men in the Flint Legionnaires' outbreak—

NARRATOR:

That summer, 11 months of pretrial testimony was coming to an end in the case against Nick Lyon—

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Did Lyon fail to warn about the outbreak?

NARRATOR:

—with a long-awaited ruling on whether the evidence was strong enough to send his case to trial.

FEMALE COURT CLERK:

All rise.

RON FONGER:

You have a member of the governor's Cabinet who is still on the job as the top health official in the state of Michigan on trial for poisoning people.

JUDGE DAVID GOGGINS:

The prosecution has charged Mr. Lyon with involuntary manslaughter.

RON FONGER:

I think maybe that is unprecedented.

DAVID GOGGINS:

Based upon all of the evidence in its totality, I find that the prosecution has established that the following crimes have been committed and probable cause exists to believe that Nicholas Lyon has committed these offenses.

NARRATOR:

The judge ordered Lyon to stand trial. Another judge would order the same for Eden Wells.

Both appealed the decisions, delaying the start of any trials.

And while the appeals were dragging on—

MALE NEWSREADER:

Change in political landscape for our state—

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

The biggest midterm election in a generation—

NARRATOR:

—the political landscape in Michigan was changing, with a new governor—

MALE NEWSREADER:

It’s a dominating night for Democrats, winning a number of key races, including governor, attorney general—

NARRATOR:

—and a new attorney general, a Democrat who’d criticized the investigation for not producing results.

DANA NESSEL, Democratic attorney general candidate:

I think we have to take a very close look at those investigations.

We have to reevaluate, and I think we should have career prosecutors handling those cases.

To the best of my knowledge—

NARRATOR:

By the beginning of 2019, the fate of the investigation was uncertain.

With the criminal cases in limbo, we were still trying to determine the toll of the Legionnaires’ outbreak.

JACOB CARAH:

It’s kind of like detective work. You look at the evidence, you evaluate the circumstances, and then you start putting these pieces together.

NARRATOR:

After months of reporting and analysis, FRONTLINE had documented 115 pneumonia deaths that happened in Flint during the outbreak. In response to our findings, a spokeswoman for the state health department told us they’d noticed an increase, too, and concluded it was due to influenza.

But independent scientists were telling us that in all likelihood, some of them were actually due to Legionnaires'.

JACOB CARAH:

I took the information from the death certificates and I plotted out each one of those deaths on a map, just to kind of see if anything stood out. And in fact it did.

In particular, the older parts of the city; we found these clusters of people that, around the same time frame as the switch, were dying of pneumonia and dying of Legionnaires’ disease.

JACOB CARAH:

We’re in Mott Park.

NARRATOR:

Mott Park is a neighborhood on the west side of Flint where we found six deaths attributed to pneumonia in the beginning of the outbreak, triple what it had been during that time the previous year.

JACOB CARAH:

Did you guys ever think that there was something wrong with the water?

LOREE MOORE:

No. I didn’t know anything was wrong with the water.

NARRATOR:

Loree Moore lived here with her nephew Marcus Wilson during the summer of 2014, when Marcus was recovering from cancer treatments.

LOREE MOORE:

He was weak, but he wasn't weak-weak. He was walking; he was doing everything on his own.

JACOB CARAH:

Did Marcus use the water here a lot? Did he—

LOREE MOORE:

Yes, he did. He drunk a lot of water.

He would take showers and he would sit in there for a long time and just let the water run in his face. And I was like, "Marcus, you OK?" And he was like, "Man, that water feel good." And he would always just sit in there and just, you know, let the water hit him in his face, you know, in the chair.

JACOB CARAH:

So he's sitting in there, hot water, breathing it in, right in his face?

LOREE MOORE:

Yes. Yes. He would just sit there in the chair and hold his face like this.

NARRATOR:

Back when the outbreak was erupting in August 2014, Marcus went to the hospital. Doctors diagnosed him with pneumonia, never testing for Legionnaires'.

A few weeks later, he was dead.

Without testing, there was no way to know for certain if Marcus Wilson or any of the 115 people we’d found had died of Legionnaires’. But what were the chances that some of them had?

JACOB CARAH:

I'm a beat reporter; I'm not an epidemiologist.

You can talk to families, you can put dots on a map and make assumptions about clusters, but at the end of the day, you really do need an objective, independent review of that data.

NARRATOR:

So we took our reporting to Atlanta, to Emory University, where a team of independent epidemiologists we’d commissioned built their own statistical model to analyze the data we’d been collecting.

KRISTIN NELSON, Ph.D., Epidemiologist, Emory University:

What a statistical model allows us to do is to really see the forest for the trees; to look at whether or not the difference that we saw in Genesee County was actually statistically meaningful.

NARRATOR:

The team compared the pneumonia deaths to a control group.

KRISTIN NELSON:

The control group that we chose for this analysis was counties that were similar to Genesee County in many respects—in terms of their size and income and education level and socioeconomic profile—but were both in Michigan and in surrounding states.

And so what we see here is that when we start in 2011, and we follow this mortality rate, they're pretty similar between Genesee County and the controls. And they're pretty similar; they're quite similar; and this continues until we get to about the middle of 2014. And this is sort of where the inflection point happens here.

NARRATOR:

The increase was most pronounced in the first six months of 2014, and less so in 2015. It's not clear why, since Flint was still on river water then.

ZACHARY BINNEY, Ph.D., Epidemiologist, Emory University:

Right when the Legionnaires' epidemic starts, the pneumonia death rate in Genesee goes up, while in the other counties it's going down. So we've got this very clear divergence when you plot that over time.

NARRATOR:

After running the numbers, the team concluded there’d been about 70 more pneumonia deaths than normal.

KRISTIN NELSON:

That means that there could have been a little bit more than 70 and there could have been fewer. However, the most plausible number that we came up with from our models is 70.

ZACHARY BINNEY:

This is definitely consistent with the idea that there were some Legionnaires' cases that did not get diagnosed and therefore did not get included in the official count for the outbreak.

It's likely that the Legionnaires' outbreak was bigger than that reported by official authorities.

KRISTIN NELSON:

If physicians had a higher level of awareness about the Legionnaires' disease outbreak earlier than they did, it's possible that that could have ultimately led to fewer cases and fewer deaths due to Legionnaires'.

NARRATOR:

We presented our findings, and Emory's, to former Gov. Rick Snyder, who declined to comment. The state health department also declined, citing pending litigation.

The official death toll from the outbreak remains 12 people.

MALE PASTOR:

The Lord is your keeper. The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night.

CONGREGATION:

Amen.

NARRATOR:

Looking further into our data, we made another discovery: Of the people who were diagnosed with Legionnaires’ during the outbreak and initially survived, at least 20 had since died.

FEMALE FAMILY MEMBER:

Jassmine D. McBride departed this life on February the 12th, 2019, at St. Mary Mercy Hospital in Livonia, Michigan—

NARRATOR:

In the end, Jassmine McBride couldn’t overcome the damage that had been done by the Legionnaires’ disease.

MARCUS ZERVOS:

What was the cause of her death were complications as a result of Legionnaires' disease. She had heart problems, she had lung problems, she had kidney problems; and that resulted in her having a cardiac arrest.

FEMALE COUSIN:

If she could get up right now, she would say, “I’m not suffering anymore from Legionnaires' disease. I’m not suffering waiting to get a transplant. Thank God I’m free.” Jassy, you’re free! Rest in peace.

JACQUELINE McBRIDE:

She fought a good fight. She finished her course. And the victory is hers.

She was angry and she forgave them. She just want justice to be served.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

A big story we are following tonight: Outrage in the city of Flint, Michigan—

MALE NEWSREADER:

People of Flint, Michigan, say they are horrified again—

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

The shocking decision from the newly Democratic attorney general’s office—

NARRATOR:

Four months later—

CLAUDIA MILTON:

A lot of us are really angry. And we want to see some justice. We want justice.

NARRATOR:

—Michigan’s new attorney general had ousted Todd Flood and most of his team and appointed new prosecutors, who dropped all the charges against Nick Lyon, Dr. Eden Wells and the other officials.

FADWA HAMMOUD, Solicitor general, Michigan:

When we first came into the investigation, we had some very real concerns.

KYM WORTHY, Prosecutor, Wayne County:

Some major, major concerns. And when I looked at it, I told Fadwa—I think I may have told the attorney general, "We're going to have to start from the beginning. We're gonna have to start from scratch."

NARRATOR:

Despite two judges ruling the cases should go to trial, the new prosecutors say the previous investigation was fundamentally flawed and failed to collect all available evidence.

FADWA HAMMOUD:

If we know that an investigation was not complete, you just simply cannot proceed.

It's very important when we say we dropped the charges is that these charges are dismissed without prejudice, which means these charges could be brought up again today.

We're supposed to have everything; look at it; make a decision. That's not the way things happened in this case. Millions and millions of dollars have been spent on the Flint water investigation. They wasted three years for zero; for nothing.

TODD FLOOD:

Here's the thing: I know we worked tirelessly to put a great case together and continue the investigation. I know that, right? And I can say that without equivocation.

And candidly, look, the facts speak for themselves. We won. We got the cases bound over. We did things the old-fashioned way of moving from the bottom and going up in the investigation. And the investigation for us was far from over.

NARRATOR:

More than five years after the start of the outbreak, it remains to be seen whether any of the officials at the center of the Flint water crisis will be held responsible.

FADWA HAMMOUD:

Flint happened. People have to live with this for years and years and years and years and years to come. We are interested in justice, no matter how hard that is. We did not choose the easy route, but we chose the route that the people of Flint deserve.

NOAH HALL:

I'm more than skeptical. It makes no sense to drop the charges; dismiss the investigation; to start from scratch with the clock ticking. I guess time will tell, but I suspect that justice delayed is going to be justice forgotten.

ERIC MAYS:

Believe me, it's been a long five years. It's been five years too long. This is something that has not really happened before. It was man-made. This was not a coincidence; this was thought-out; it was calculated; it was decisions made; and those people must be held accountable.

Flint eventually canceled plans to get its water from the pipeline.

Until all of Flint's corroded pipes are replaced, residents have been advised not to use the water.

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