Ex-Michigan health chief charged with manslaughter over Flint water crisis

Flint: Michigan's former health director has been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of nine people who got Legionnaires' disease during the Flint water crisis as prosecutors revisit how the city’s water system was contaminated with lead and bacteria during one of worst human-made environmental disasters in US history.

Nick Lyon pleaded not guilty during an appearance in a Genesee County court. Moments later, his old boss, former governor Rick Snyder, also pleaded not guilty to misdemeanour charges of willful neglect of duty in Flint.

Nick Lyon, the former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, pictured in 2018.Credit:The Flint Journal via AP

Each of the involuntary manslaughter counts is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $US7500 ($9690) fine.

The charges against Snyder carry up to a year in jail and a $US1000 ($1290) fine upon conviction. No governor or former governor in Michigan’s 184-year history had been charged with crimes related to their time in that office, according to the state archivist.

“We believe there is no evidence to support any criminal charges against Governor Snyder,” defence attorney Brian Lennon said on Wednesday night, adding that prosecutors still hadn’t provided him with any details.

Snyder, a Republican, was governor from 2011 through 2018. The former computer executive pitched himself as a problem-solving “nerd” who eschewed partisan politics and favoured online dashboards to show performance in government. Flint turned out to be the worst chapter of his two terms due to a series of catastrophic decisions that will affect residents for years.

Former Michigan governor Rick Snyder.Credit:AP

The date of Snyder's alleged crimes in Flint is listed as April 25, 2014, when a Snyder-appointed emergency manager who was running the struggling, majority black city carried out a money-saving decision to use the Flint River for water while a pipeline from Lake Huron was under construction.

The corrosive water, however, was not treated properly and released lead from old plumbing into homes.

Despite desperate pleas from residents holding jugs of discoloured, tainted water, the Snyder administration took no significant action until a doctor reported elevated lead levels in children about 18 months later.

“I’m sorry and I will fix it,” Snyder promised during his 2016 State of the State speech.

Authorities also counted at least 90 cases of Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County, including 12 deaths. Some experts found there was not enough chlorine in Flint's water-treatment system to control legionella bacteria, which can trigger a severe form of pneumonia when spread through misting and cooling systems.

Lead can damage the brain and nervous system and cause learning and behaviour problems. The crisis was highlighted as an example of environmental injustice and racism.

The criminal investigation has lasted five years under two teams of prosecutors.

Todd Flood, who got misdemeanour convictions from seven people, was ousted in 2019 after the election of Nessel, a Democrat. Fadwa Hammoud subsequently dropped charges in eight pending cases and said the investigation would start over. She said the first team had failed to collect all available evidence.

Separately, the state, Flint, a hospital and an engineering firm have agreed to a $US641 million settlement with residents over the water crisis, with $US600 million coming from Michigan. A judge said she hopes to decide by January 21 whether to grant preliminary approval. Other lawsuits, including one against the US Environmental Protection Agency, are pending.


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