Records: State ignored EPA warnings about deadly Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy testified Thursday at a Congressional hearing on the Flint water crisis.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy testified Thursday at a Congressional hearing on the Flint water crisis.

By Steve Neavling
Motor City Muckraker 

The Environmental Protection Agency warned Michigan in March that health experts suspected the highly corrosive Flint River was causing a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, but Gov. Rick Snyder waited until January to make a public announcement.

E-mails first obtained by the Detroit News show the state told the EPA it would alert the public, but Snyder waited nearly 10 months to make the announcement, claiming he knew nothing about it.  

At least 87 cases of Legionnaires’ disease and 10 deaths were reported in Genesee County from June 2014 to November 2015.

Gov. Rick Snyder
Gov. Rick Snyder

The newly released e-mails, which were confirmed by Motor City Muckraker, is the strongest indication yet that state officials knew people were dying and did little or nothing about it. The EPA offered technical assistance, but state officials declined it, even after acknowledging the state was not experienced in overseeing the treatment of corrosion control, records show.

On Tuesday, investigators for the Michigan Attorney General’s office said they would consider manslaughter charges if state officials balked at warning residents of the deadly outbreak.

In a March phone call, an EPA official said, “The state is currently figuring out a communication-with-the-public plan.”

Nearly 10 months passed before the public was notified.

Additional e-mails obtained by Motor City Muckraker show the EPA sounded the alarm about serious health risks with the Flint River, but the state responded with indifference.

5 disturbing revelations from Gov. Snyder’s e-mails about Flint water crisis

Finally, in October, the state acknowledged it mishandled the growing crisis and allowed the city to switch its drinking water back to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, but still made no mention of the Legionnaires’ outbreak.

By then, thousands of people had been poisoned by elevated levels of lead, causing a public health crisis that will affect residents for generations.
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Lead is especially damaging to children’s brains and has caused an increase in “miscarriages and fetal deaths,” said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint.

During a congressional hearing Thursday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the state misled the federal agency about the health dangers and the use of corrosion controls.

After learning that “corrosion control was not happening,” McCarthy testified, the EPA “recommended to the state that they take action to get corrosion control up and running.”

The governor’s office has not responded yet to the EPA records.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

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