Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
Unquestionably, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (“DEQ”) bears much of the responsibility for the Flint Water Crisis. For example, DEQ is primarily responsible for the monitoring of water contaminants, including lead in municipal drinking water.
However, as Governor Rick Snyder’s Flint Water Advisory Task Force (“Task Force”) concluded in its Final Report, the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services (“DHHS”) shares a significant portion of the blame as well.
DHHS is responsible for the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, which monitors and tracks children’s blood lead levels throughout the state. The Task Force has concluded that DHHS failed to timely analyze its own data concerning childhood lead levels in Flint, and failed to communicate and share its data with local public health agencies.
According to the Task Force, DHHS dropped the ball with respect to the Legionnaires disease tragedy as well. DHHS failed to coordinate its efforts with DEQ, and did not disclose for months that the Legionella outbreak was likely related to the use of the Flint River as a drinking-water source.
We now learn that DHHS Director Nick Lyon attended a meeting in January 2015 to discuss the spike in Flint’s Legionnaires disease cases.
E-mails show that Snyder was personally aware of a problem with Flint’s water supply as early as February 2015. During his 2016 State of the State Address, Snyder said that his office had “proactively asked about the quality of Flint’s water, test results, and blood testing” in “July 2015.” By September and October 2015, Snyder and his top appointees were routinely communicating about Flint’s water via e-mail.
Yet Snyder’s former chief of staff Dennis Muchmore claims that Lyon did not disclose the Legionella issue to Snyder until January 11, 2016. Similarly, Snyder testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight & Government Reform Committee earlier this month that he did not learn about Flint’s Legionella outbreak until January of this year.
What, exactly, should we believe?
Is it likely that Lyon, a top department director in Snyder’s inner circle, did not disclose the existence of the Legionella spike to Snyder until January 2016? Or is it more likely that Snyder knew of the Legionnaires disease outbreak prior to January, despite his sworn testimony to the contrary?
In the past, Governor Snyder’s office has sung high praise for Lyon. Two months ago, I wrote that I did not believe Lyon would face the same fate as former DEQ Director Dan Wyant, who was forced to resign last December. But now I’m not so sure.
Blaming Lyon is becoming a bit too convenient. By declaring that Lyon failed to timely inform Snyder of the Legionella outbreak, the Governor’s office can perpetuate the story that Snyder did not know about the issue until January 2016.
In truth, it seems probable that Snyder had some awareness of the Legionella issue months earlier. After all, officials suspected a link between the Flint River water and the Legionnaires spike as early as October 2014. But, as we all know, a scapegoat and an official explanation tend to give any myth an air of believability.
In his State of the State Address on January 19, 2016, Snyder had this to say to the People of Michigan: “You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here with me. Most of all, you deserve to know the truth, and I have a responsibility to tell the truth.” Well, Mr. Governor, what is the truth?
It does not appear that Nick Lyon is in immediate jeopardy of losing his job. Several people continue to defend him, and his name has been absent from the press in recent weeks due to a shoulder injury that he sustained in an accident last month.
But I still wonder: What will happen if things get worse for Snyder, or if he is caught in more lies? If that happens, Lyon could very easily be the next fall guy in what has become a continuing saga of blame shifting.
Of course, it’s possible that Snyder really did not know of the Legionella issue until January, and that Lyon actually sat on the information for a year without telling his boss. This would present a host of additional questions, however, including whether Snyder acted wisely by combining the former Departments of Community Health and Human Services, and whether he should reestablish a cabinet-level department dedicated exclusively to public health. For several months, I have wondered whether the new DHHS has become too large and bureaucratic to stay focused on public health as a top priority. Regardless of who’s to blame for the Legionella tragedy, the issue of DHHS’s responsiveness to public-health disasters must be examined as part of the Flint Water Crisis investigation.