Nick Lyon, head of the Michigan health department was charged with involuntary manslaughter Wednesday morning as part of an ongoing investigation into the Flint water crisis.
Lyon is accused of failing to notify residents of Flint of an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the area between 2014–2015. Legionnaires’ is a type of bacterial pneumonia that experts have linked to contaminated water.
Lyon has admitted that he knew of the outbreak for months, as David Eggert of Associated Press reports:
Lyon has admitted that he was aware of the Legionnaires’ outbreak for months but wanted to wait until investigators in the state Health and Human Services Department finished their own probe.
He told state lawmakers that experts likely wanted to “solve the problem” before they raised it with senior officials in the Snyder administration. The investigation, he said, “wasn’t one that was easily solved.”
The outbreak began when the city’s water was drawn from the Flint River. Nearly 100 cases of Legionnaires’ were reported in Flint, resulting in 12 deaths over the two years. According to the AP, special agent Jeff Seipenko said that Lyon’s failure to act caused the death of at least one Flint resident—85-year-old Robert Skidmore.
While some public health officials first identified contaminated water as a potential cause of the spread of Legionnaires’ in 2014, state officials did not alert the public. In 2016, a CDC investigation revealed genetic links between bacteria in Flint water and patients in the area affected by Legionnaires’.
The city stopped using the Flint River as a source of drinking water in 2015 after the CDC found increased levels of lead in children’s blood. The toxic metal was leaching from city pipes due to the river water’s corrosive qualities. Based on the CDC report, 99,000 residents of Flint were directly impacted when the water source was changed from Lake Huron.
This ruling makes Lyon the most senior member of the state administration to be charged in the Flint probe. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical officer was also charged with obstruction of justice and lying to the police after claiming a lack of knowledge of the epidemic.