Michigan’s former governor and health director charged in Flint water crisis

DETROIT (Reuters) – Michigan’s former health director was charged Thursday with involuntary manslaughter as part of a years-long criminal investigation into the crisis surrounding lead contamination of the drinking water system serving the city of Flint.

Nick Lyon pleaded not guilty to the charges, which were linked to the deaths of nine people, at his arraignment in a Gennessee County court on Thursday, according to media reports.

Former Governor Rick Snyder and Howard Croft, Flint’s former public works director, were also arraigned, the reports said.

Michigan’s attorney general and a team of prosecutors are due to unveil the full findings of their investigation into the Flint water crisis later on Thursday morning.

Snyder was charged on Wednesday with two misdemeanor counts of willful neglect of duty for his role in a debacle that afflicted the predominantly African-American city and became emblematic of racial inequality in the United States.

Flint’s troubles began in 2014 after the city switched its water supply to the Flint River from Lake Huron to cut costs. Corrosive river water caused lead to leach from pipes, tainting the drinking water and causing an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.

The contamination also prompted several lawsuits from parents who said their children were showing dangerously high blood levels of lead, which can cause development disorders. Lead can be toxic and children are especially vulnerable.

A civil settlement of more than $600 million was reached with victims of the water crisis in August 2020 and is awaiting court approval.

The date of the misdemeanor offense in charging documents filed against Snyder and posted online was listed as April 25, 2014, the day the city switched water systems. Each count carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The Detroit News has reported that as many as 10 people in all faced charges stemming from the water crisis, including some former members of Snyder’s administration.

Snyder, a Republican who has been out of office for two years, was governor when the city of some 100,000 residents was under the control of a state-appointed manager in 2014. He was succeeded by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat.

The former Wayne County prosecutor appointed in 2016 to lead the state’s investigation of the matter said then that he was looking to determine whether any officials who signed off on the change in the water system had acted criminally.

On Wednesday, the office of the state attorney general, Dana Nessel, also a Democrat, said the findings of that inquiry would be announced at a news conference on Thursday, along with Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.

Snyder has repeatedly apologized for the state’s poor handling of the crisis, but his lawyer, Brian Lennon, has said any prosecution of the former governor would be politically motivated.

“It is outrageous to think any criminal charges would be filed against Governor Snyder. Any charges would be meritless,” Lennon said in a statement the day before the case was filed.

Nessel’s office declined to comment on the case ahead of Thursday’s news conference.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta, Brendan O’Brien, Ben Klayman and Nathan Layne; additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Mother sues Pennsylvania school district over lead-tainted water

water fountain representing lead story

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A mother has sued a Pennsylvania school district for a delay in telling parents that the water at her daughter’s school was contaminated with toxic levels of lead, according to a complaint filed in U.S. federal court on Wednesday.

The Butler Area School District told parents in a letter on Jan. 20 that test results, which they acknowledged receiving five months earlier, had found leads levels at Summit Elementary School “exceeding acceptable water standards.”

Jennifer Tait, whose daughter attends the school, says officials should have said something as soon as the test results came through last August, according to her lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh.

Despite lead abatement efforts beginning in the 20th century, when lead was once commonly used in pipes and paint, communities across the United States continue to be exposed to dangerous levels of the metal. Lead poisoning can permanently stunt a child’s intelligence and development.

The issue came to the fore again in 2015 after state officials in Michigan acknowledged that the water supply in the city of Flint had been contaminated by lead.

In her lawsuit, Tait accuses school district officials in Butler of a “gross delay” in notifying parents, saying her daughter and other students routinely drank water tainted with toxic levels of lead for the five months between when the school district’s received the test results and when it sent out the letter.

The district officials’ actions in effect created “a school full of poisonous drinking water,” the lawsuit said. Tait is seeking damages for negligence, among other charges, and is asking the court to allow others at the school to join in the lawsuit.

William Pettigrew, the school district’s acting superintendent, referred questions about the lawsuit to the district’s lawyer, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Pettigrew said he took over after Dale Lumley, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, resigned and retired on Sunday. Lumley could not immediately be reached for comment.

In an earlier statement, Lumley said a school maintenance official failed to share the worrying test results with him or the district’s board until Jan. 19, the day before he sent out the letter to parents and sought out a supply of bottled water for students.

The district’s director of maintenance also resigned this week, Pettigrew said.

“The school is closed under my recommendation,” Pettigrew said. The children are now being taught in a vacant school building nearby, he said.

The school’s water was found to contain lead at levels nearly four times higher than federal limits, with one sample measured at 55 parts per billion, according to the Jan. 20 letter, which is posted on the district’s website.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Bill Rigby and Leslie Adler)