Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette charged five current and former officials with involuntary manslaughter on Wednesday, alleging that their failure to act on Flint’s water crisis caused at least one death. Nick Lyon, head of the state Department of Health and Human Services, “deliberately failed to inform the public” about an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in 2014, Schuette alleged, and he participated in a cover-up “by repeatedly attempting to prevent an independent researcher from looking into the cause of the outbreak.” The Legionnaires’ outbreak killed a dozen people—including 85-year-old Robert Skidmore, the victim cited in the charges, and sickened more than 70. If convicted, Lyon and the four other officials each could face up to 15 years in prison.
Both lead poisoning and Legionnaires’ disease began plaguing Flint residents after the city’s water supply was switched to the Flint River in April 2014. Scientists are still working to prove that the city’s water caused the Legionnaires’ outbreak, a link that Lyon and others are alleged to have covered up. Multiple Flint officials have been criminally charged with attempting to cover up the lead contamination.
Jonathan Masur, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School who teaches both criminal and environmental law, told me the involuntary manslaughter charges are important are because they indicate the length Schuette is willing to go to hold public officials accountable for the water crisis. “People should draw from this that the issue is being taken enormously seriously, and standard remedies like firing the officials or even fining them was insufficient,” he said. Indeed, if it’s proven that Flint’s lead contamination caused any deaths, it’s possible that public officials who ignored or tried to cover up the crisis could face similar charges.