Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette charged five officials with involuntary manslaughter Wednesday over their handling of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
The officials presided over a failure to maintain the safety of the city’s water supply, resulting in widespread lead poisoning among Flint children and 12 deaths connected to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.
“People in Flint have died as a result of the decisions made by those responsible to protect the health and safety of families,” Schuette said during a press conference Wednesday.
The defendants, all high-ranking members of the city and state government, are Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, former Flint water manager Howard Croft, and Liane Shekter-Smith and Stephen Busch of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Additionally, Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical officer, has been charged with obstruction of justice and lying to a police officer.
The charges were announced in a Flint court on Wednesday.
The involuntary manslaughter charges stem specifically from the death of Robert Skidmore, 85, of Mt. Morris, Michigan, a city adjacent to Flint. Legionnaires’ disease is caused by bacteria that can be harbored in mismanaged water systems and that are particularly dangerous in large buildings.
Speaking to reporters, Schuette called the Flint probe “the most comprehensive investigation” in Michigan’s modern history. He said he’s “very confident” the charges filed will be upheld in court.
“The health crisis in Flint has created a trust crisis in Michigan government, exposing a serious lack of confidence in leaders to accept responsibility and solve problems,” Schuette said.
Researchers linked the outbreak of Legionella bacteria to corrosion resulting from the mistreatment of Flint’s water starting in 2014. The Legionnaires’ deaths are the only fatalities directly linked to the lead poisoning crisis, which drew national attention starting at the end of 2015.
Emails obtained by a liberal watchdog group last year revealed that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services knew of the Legionella outbreak in 2015 and even told the governor’s office ― but said it wasn’t a serious problem.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who has insisted he moved to take action to fix the problems with Flint’s water as soon as he learned of the danger, defended state employees in a statement Wednesday.
“Director Lyon and Dr. Eden Wells, like every other person who has been charged with a crime by Bill Schuette, are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Snyder said.
Schuette, a Republican, is conducting an ongoing investigation into the lead crisis. So far, he has charged more than a dozen people with crimes.
“Some state employees were charged over a year ago and have been suspended from work since that time,” Snyder said. “They still have not had their day in court. That is not justice for Flint nor for those who have been charged.”
Asked Wednesday about the charges, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician whose research exposed elevated blood lead levels in Flint children, called the situation a “tough one.”
“Especially the charges against Dr Wells,” she told HuffPost in an email. “However, restorative justice and accountability are critical to the journey towards healing in Flint.”
Hanna-Attisha added that she wants to “remind everyone that after my research went public, and the state went after me, Dr. Eden Wells was critical to getting her colleagues in [Gov. Rick Snyder’s] administration to finally understand and respond to the gravity of the crisis.”
Legionnaires’ disease is a pneumonia-like illness caused by inhaling water vapor infected with Legionella bacteria. Unlike the lead poisoning that has affected thousands of Flint children, Legionnaires’ is not caused by drinking contaminated water.