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Case against Michigan health director may be at pivotal point

Nov 15, 2017

A judge is considering whether to allow testimony that could link state health director Nick Lyon to an effort to limit a study into a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak.

Lyon is facing charges of involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office.  

Wayne State University environmental engineering professor Shawn McElmurry was part of a team studying the legionella outbreak in Genesee County from 2014 through 2015.   

McElmurry says water filters were one of several points in people’s homes in Flint where the researchers hoped to find sample of legionella bacteria.    

But McElmurry testified today that Dr. Eden Wells, Michigan’s chief medical executive, told him collecting water filters for the study would be "a red line."     

Special Counsel Todd Flood argues efforts to prevent the Wayne State study from finding the source of the legionella bacteria came from the top.

“That’s what Eden Wells and Nick Lyon were doing together … saying 'I don’t want you to figure this out,' Flood argued to the judge. “Because if you figure this out, then I’m in trouble. Because now I have a connection to the water and the increase in legionella.”

State Department of Health and Human Services director Nick Lyon listens as Special Counsel Todd Flood questions a witness during Lyon's preliminary exam on involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office charges.
Credit steve carmody / Michigan Radio

Lyon’s lawyer says there’s no evidence that his client was part of a conspiracy.

Defense Attorney Chip Chamberlain rejects the prosecutor’s effort to tie Lyon to the remark.

“Under his logic, anything any employee ever said to him or anyone else is somehow admissible against him. It is not,” says Chamberlain. 

After meeting briefly with the attorneys in his chamber, the judge adjourned the hearing until Friday.

Earlier, McElmurry testified about the state of Flint’s water system at the time of the city’s water crisis.

He says Flint’s water system is almost “designed” for legionella and other bacteria.

“It gives bacteria time to replicate and grow,” says McElmurry.

He says efforts to chlorinate water is hampered by the outsized nature of Flint’s water system. The water system was built for a city of 200,000. But fewer than 100,000 live in the city now. That and other factors allow for bacteria to grow.

McElmurry testified the bacteria plumes may have grown so much that it may have affected efforts by a local hospital to address them. 

He also noted a study of children’s blood lead levels. After the city’s switch to the Flint River as the city’s drinking water source, blood lead levels started to climb.  

McElmurry notes that lead levels started falling after a series of boil water advisories were issued in the late summer of 2014. The public apparently responded to the advisories, in part, by drinking less tap water.

Nick Lyon and other officials in the state Department of Health and Human Services were aware of the Legionnaires' disease outbreak in Genesee County has early as January 2015. But the public was not informed of the outbreak until January 2016.

At least a dozen people died of Legionnaires during the outbreak. Dozen more were hospitalized. 

The source of the legionella bacteria remains in dispute, although some experts believe improperly treated water from the Flint River is likely the source.