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Trial postponed in Flint case as report finds that death toll could be much higher

A new report argues more than 100 people may have died, but a trial targeting the state health department head has been postponed.

Claudia Perkins, 65, of Flint, Michigan, joins in a chant as her grandchildren, Laila Halford, left, 6, and DeAngelo Perkins, right, 4, watch during a protest on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol on April 11, 2018 in Lansing, Michigan. CREDIT: Brittany Greeson/Getty Images
Claudia Perkins, 65, of Flint, Michigan, joins in a chant as her grandchildren, Laila Halford, left, 6, and DeAngelo Perkins, right, 4, watch during a protest on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol on April 11, 2018 in Lansing, Michigan. CREDIT: Brittany Greeson/Getty Images

A new investigation by PBS Frontline has found that contaminated water in Flint, Michigan may have killed almost ten times the number of people as the official count currently indicates, through a rare form of pneumonia.

The news coincides with a delay in the trial against the head of the state’s health department to determine whether he is guilty of involuntary manslaughter and other felony charges relating to the water crisis.

A decision was initially expected to come Wednesday but instead District Court Judge David Goggins delayed issuing a decision in the case against Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Nick Lyon until August 20.

According to Michigan Radio, defense attorney John Bursch said that Goggins had asked both the prosecution and the defense to further address lingering questions in the case. “One thing he asked us to focus on specifically was the gross negligence aspect of the manslaughter charges,” Bursch said.

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Lyon has held his position for several years and was head of the state’s health department in 2014 when Genesee County — where Flint is located — saw an outbreak of Legionnaires Disease, a rare and deadly form of pneumonia linked to fresh water sources. No public announcement was made about the outbreak until January 2016, by which point people were already sick.

Two elderly men, Richard Skidmore and John Snyder, both from the Flint area, died from the disease, and their deaths are cited in the case against Lyon. Prosecutors say the health department head waited too long to tell the public and to warn them about the disease’s link to drinking water.

Special Prosecutor Todd Flood has argued that Lyon “had the chance to save lives” but did not, at the expense of Flint’s residents. Bursch has countered that Lyon lacked full information and should not be held accountable for the extent of the crisis.

The case marks the latest chapter in the Flint water crisis, which began in 2014 when the town’s water source was switched as a cost-saving measure. Insufficient water treatment allowed the water to become contaminated with lead, endangering around 100,000 people in the area and prompting a state of emergency in 2016.

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At the same time, people became sick with Legionnaires Disease. That outbreak, which lasted into 2015, officially killed 12 people and sickened 90. But that number is now under scrutiny.

A PBS Frontline investigation, released Tuesday, closely inspected the death count and found that 119 people died of pneumonia during that period of time, with many of those cases potentially linked to the legionella bacteria. Interviews with epidemiologists and infectious disease experts, as well as an extensive review of death records, appear to corroborate the findings that many of the deaths could in fact be linked to the water crisis.

The Frontline team noted an uptick in pneumonia deaths between April 2014 and October 2015, a 46 percent increase over the same timespan reviewed going back six years. The investigation notes that such an increase is unusual.

Flood, the prosecutor, has argued in court that the death count could in fact be much higher than the official number recorded, though only the deaths of Skidmore and Snyder have been formally named.

Fallout from Flint’s tragedy remains ongoing, on a national level as well as a local one. A 74-page report released by the Environmental Protection Agency’s watchdog called on the EPA to heighten oversight of state drinking water systems, pointing to “oversight lapses.”

A number of criminal cases have also been brought locally in response to the water crisis, including several targeting employees from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Michigan health department.

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Goggins’ decision in Lyon’s case will now come 13 days after Michigan’s primaries, which will take place on August 7. Notably, Attorney General Bill Schuette and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley are the front-runners for the state’s Republican gubernatorial nomination. Schuette was the prosecutor who brought the initial prosecutions in the Flint water crisis case.