FLINT, Mich. (AP MODIFIED) — Michigan's former health director was charged Thursday with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of nine people who got Legionnaires' disease during the Flint water crisis.
Nick Lyon pleaded not guilty during an appearance in a Genesee County court. He worked for then-Gov. Rick Snyder, who is facing misdemeanor charges of willful neglect of duty in Flint.
Lyon's attorney Chip Chamberlain released the following statement regarding the charges:
"Today our client, Nick Lyon, and his family learned that once again he has been charged by the Attorney General's office with serious offenses stemming from the switch in Flint's municipal water supply almost seven years ago.
Our hearts go out to Flint citizens who have endured the fallout from that decision. But it does not help the people of Flint – or our criminal justice system – for the State to charge innocent people with crimes. Mr. Lyon is innocent.
He did not make the decision to switch the water supply and had nothing to do with handling the water. Everything he did as director of the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services (MDHHS) he did based on the advice of highly trained epidemiologists and public health scientists and experts who themselves were looking at the science and following the data.
It’s apparent that once again, the Attorney General has ignored the facts and the evidence. This is a dangerous day for state employees."
Prosecutors are revisiting how Flint's water system was contaminated with lead during one of worst human-made environmental disasters in U.S. history.
The charges against Snyder carry up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine upon conviction. No governor or former governor in Michigan's 184-year history had been charged with crimes related to their time in that office, according to the state archivist.
"We believe there is no evidence to support any criminal charges against Gov. Snyder," defense attorney Brian Lennon said Wednesday night, adding that prosecutors still hadn't provided him with any details.
Snyder, a Republican, was governor from 2011 through 2018. The former computer executive pitched himself as a problem-solving "nerd" who eschewed partisan politics and favored online dashboards to show performance in government. Flint turned out to be the worst chapter of his two terms due to a series of catastrophic decisions that will affect residents for years.
The date of Snyder's alleged crimes in Flint is listed as April 25, 2014, when a Snyder-appointed emergency manager who was running the struggling, majority Black city carried out a money-saving decision to use the Flint River for water while a pipeline from Lake Huron was under construction.
The corrosive water, however, was not treated properly and released lead from old plumbing into homes.
Despite desperate pleas from residents holding jugs of discolored, skunky water, the Snyder administration took no significant action until a doctor reported elevated lead levels in children about 18 months later.
"I'm sorry and I will fix it," Snyder promised during his 2016 State of the State speech.
Authorities also counted at least 90 cases of Legionnaires' disease in Genesee County, including 12 deaths. Some experts found there was not enough chlorine in Flint's water-treatment system to control legionella bacteria, which can trigger a severe form of pneumonia when spread through misting and cooling systems.
Lead can damage the brain and nervous system and cause learning and behavior problems. The crisis was highlighted as an example of environmental injustice and racism.
The criminal investigation has lasted five years under two teams of prosecutors. Todd Flood, who got misdemeanor convictions from seven people, was ousted in 2019 after the election of Nessel, a Democrat. Fadwa Hammoud subsequently dropped charges in eight pending cases and said the investigation would start over. She said the first team had failed to collect all available evidence.
Separately, the state, Flint, a hospital and an engineering firm have agreed to a $641 million settlement with residents over the water crisis, with $600 million coming from Michigan. A judge said she hopes to decide by Jan. 21 whether to grant preliminary approval. Other lawsuits, including one against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are pending.