FLINT, Mich. — An adviser to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was challenged Wednesday about why he didn’t sound the alarm about a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the Flint area, despite getting a heads-up long before the state finally acknowledged dozens of cases possibly linked to poor water quality.
A judge is holding a multiday hearing to determine if Michigan health director Nick Lyon should face trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office. He’s accused of failing to timely inform the public about a Legionnaires’ outbreak in 2014-15.
But Lyon’s lawyer, Larry Willey, tried to turn the tables during cross-examination of Harvey Hollins, who is Snyder’s urban affairs adviser. There’s no dispute that Hollins was told in a March 2015 email about Legionnaires’ in the Flint area. Indeed, many senior members of the governor’s team knew about Legionnaires’ but apparently kept their boss in the dark until late 2015 or early 2016.
“It’s clearly not in my charge,” Hollins said of specifically guarding public health, adding that he wasn’t regularly updated on what state investigators were finding.
Hollins said he informed the governor on Christmas Eve 2015 that a task force investigating the state’s response to Flint’s lead crisis probably would mention Legionnaires’ in its report. Snyder spoke about the outbreak at a news conference three weeks later, saying he had just learned about it.
Lyon has said he knew about Legionnaires’ early in 2015 but didn’t tell the public because he wanted experts to continue their investigation. His lawyers argue that it doesn’t add up to a crime.
Nearly 100 cases, including 12 deaths, were detected in Genesee County while Flint was using the Flint River for water. Legionnaires’ is a pneumonia caused by bacteria that thrive in warm water and infect the lungs. It is commonly spread by cooling systems during warm weather.
Separately, the river water wasn’t treated to reduce corrosion. The result: Lead leached from old plumbing, poisoning Flint’s water system.
Emails released in 2016 show Legionnaires’ was a hot topic in the Snyder administration in 2015. His press secretary at the time, Sara Wurfel, was told about a “spike” by her husband, Brad Wurfel, who was a spokesman at the Department of Environmental Quality. Another press aide, Dave Murray, was also in the loop along with environmental regulators.
“Pretty interesting,” Hollins testified Wednesday.
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