We knew the Flint, Mich., water crisis had poisoned people—now the investigation has reached the point of manslaughter charges. Along with several others, Nick Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, was charged June 14 with misconduct in office and involuntary manslaughter for his role in the crisis—specifically, for failing to publicize an epidemic of Legionnaires’ disease that ultimately claimed at least a dozen lives.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette alleges that Lyon knew about the epidemic in January 2015—a full year before he went public with the information. But this line of reasoning leads straight to the door of Gov. Rick Snyder’s office—a fact about which most media coverage has been silent.
While most of the attention to Flint has rightly focused on the lead poisoning, the corrosive water flowing for almost two years through copper and lead pipes led to multiple outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease. Caused by ingesting legionella bacteria, which is most often linked to plumbing systems and other human-made water structures, Legionnaires’ disease is normally rare. Research has linked Flint’s shift in water supplier to the Legionnaires’ outbreak, claiming that the corrosive water from the Flint River damaged pipes and created an environment for the bacteria to multiply and thrive before reaching Flint residents through showers and cooling systems.
Experts have suggested that 90 percent of the problems associated with water from the Flint River could have been prevented if an anti-corrosive agent had been used to treat the water after shifting from Lake Huron as a primary water source. At a meager $3,000 per month, this treatment would have saved lives.
Instead, according to Schuette, Lyon sat on information about Legionnaires’ from January 2015 to January 2016—allowing two more waves of the outbreak to pass unchecked and deflecting blame away from the water as a potential source. When Lyon finally announced the Legionnaires’ outbreak publicly on Jan. 13, 2016, Snyder claimed that he had heard of the outbreak only two days earlier.
In October 2016, when the investigation into Lyon was announced, several articles drawing on state emails noted that Harvey Hollins, Snyder’s director of urban initiatives, had been informed of a Legionnaires’ outbreak back in March 2015. Now that Lyon has been charged with failing to act on this knowledge, however, the Legionella connections to Snyder have dropped out of the media coverage.
Our review of emails released by Snyder shows that Snyder’s then-deputy press secretary Dave Murray knew about the outbreak in January 2015, two months earlier than Hollins. We don’t know if Murray is the first Snyder aide to hear about Legionnaires’ and a possible link to the water. But it places the news directly in Snyder’s office a full year before Snyder said he was told in January 2016, the same time Lyon first heard about the outbreak.
If we are to believe them, neither Murray nor another two aides notified in March saw Legionnaires’ as serious enough to alert the governor—perhaps because the Department of Environmental Quality employees writing them referred to the possibility of Legionnaires’ as bad public relations rather than a public health problem and called efforts to solve it “political flank cover.” The DEQ also stymied Genesee County efforts to bring in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help with Legionnaires’, altered dates and delayed public warnings about the outbreak for 10 months.
Obfuscation continued far beyond the public discovery of Legionella. Schuette’s warrant (pdf) for Nick Lyon describes Lyon issuing threats to Wayne State University professors investigating the cause of the outbreak. When they expressed concern that people would die in a new outbreak, Lyon allegedly said, “They have to die of something.” A senior Snyder adviser was present when Lyon said this, an adviser who told their professors their boss (Snyder) was “very unhappy” with the professors’ public statement of findings.
Previously, we have argued that the state bears ultimate responsibility for Flint, thanks to its imposition of three emergency managers between 2011 and 2015 to make decisions for the city, including about Flint’s water (under a law that wound up locally disenfranchising half of Michigan’s black citizens). More recently, two former Flint emergency managers, Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, have been charged with making false pretenses and misconduct in switching Flint’s water source.
If the decision by a state representative to switch water source was based on fraud, Flint should not be saddled with its costs and consequences. But as yet, the crisis has not sparked a lasting conversation on the emergency manager law’s validity, much less Snyder’s responsibility or reparations for its effects.
The law has also impeded efforts at achieving justice. Just consider former emergency manager Kurtz’s testimony that his job “did not include ensuring safe drinking water,” despite his total control over the city when deciding to use the polluted Flint River. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s report (pdf) on the crisis concluded that “race played a role in the Flint water crisis precisely because it was never considered,” arguing that systemic racism led to the normalization of problems in poor and minority communities.
The commission suggests that we must understand the role of structures and institutions and change the very laws to better protect people of color from future harms. Moreover, the commission report finds failure to repair the harm itself evidence of discrimination. Our focus is on the daily failure of empathy white bureaucrats showed to suffering Flint residents and how this drove outcomes.
As our ongoing research is revealing, the state’s indifference to human lives in a majority-black, impoverished city drove their actions (and inactions) in the Flint water crisis. The responsible individuals must be held to account (including the governor), but we must also address the organizational structures that produced and exacerbated the crisis. Only by understanding the more systemic failures will it be clear that Flint deserves not just emergency aid but restorative justice to repair the harm caused by the state.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Louise Seamster is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Derek Galyon (political science), Nichole Proctor (sociology and psychology) and Patrick Sonnenberg (linguistics) are undergraduate students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Follow Louise Seamster on Twitter.