Flint: The Legionnaires Will Be What Brings Criminal Charges

In my discussions about Flint’s water crisis, I keep pointing out that Rick Snyder was largely just making a show of responding until the US Attorney revealed it had started an investigation on January 5.

The Detroit News has an utterly damning report today about the part of the story that gets less national attention: local and state officials started discussing an outbreak of Legionnaires disease back in October 2014, and national experts offered help as early as March 2015, but the state did not accept assistance offered by both the EPA and CDC until January.

Darren Lytle, an expert in Legionella from the EPA’s Cincinnati office, told his colleagues that his previous research showed that changes in water chemistry can cause disruption and “destabilize” water piping systems. Lytle “thought the incidence of Legionella must be fairly extensive for the (Genesee County Health Department) to notice and study,” according to the conference call notes.

Lytle offered to come to Flint and study the origins of the pneumonia-causing bacteria, records show.

But state and county officials appear to have never followed through with the offer for help, an EPA official said. As it did in Flint’s lead contamination, the agency stayed publicly silent about the threats to public health in Genesee County while state and local officials debated how to approach the problem, records show.

[snip]

The Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that infected 87 Flint-area residents and caused nine deaths from April 2014 through November was not made public until Jan. 13, when Snyder announced them in a hastily called press conference in Detroit. Snyder had learned of the outbreak two days before, an aide said.

In January, state health officials finally requested support from CDC’s Legionella experts 11 months after it was offered, Nordlund said.

Through that entire time period, state officials pretended they were developing a public information campaign to tell Flint residents about the outbreak. And, as the story reminds, nine people died directly from Legionnaires during that period.

Shortly after the feds revealed they were investigating, the Attorney General announced his own (very conflicted) investigation, the investigator for which, Andy Arena, claimed is the biggest investigation in Michigan history (Arena led the investigation into the UndieBomb attack while still at the FBI). It has been unclear what those investigations might find or whether anyone would be found of breaking the law. Certainly, on the lead poisoning, the state seemed to believe they were adequately testing for lead (even though, as this story notes, local authorities were far more worried about months before the state officials).

But I have to believe the Legionnaires is where people are really exposed for criminal negligence, as they let people continue to be exposed to deadly bacteria months and months after federal officials tried to help.

 

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

17 replies
  1. harpie says:

    I’ve just begun to read the Free Press article, but wanted to reiterate a thought I had a week or so ago while reading through the documents here:
    http://www.michigan.gov/flintwater/0,6092,7-345-73954_75358—,00.html
    ***
    From the excerpt above: “Darren Lytle, an expert in Legionella from the EPA’s Cincinnati office, told his colleagues that his previous research showed that changes in water chemistry can cause disruption and “destabilize” water piping systems.”
    ***
    In the May, 2014 Water Treatment Plant report [access at above link] is the following note:
    ***
    “Plant operations were shut down on 5/12 until 5/14. This was done to drain a softening clarifier and change plant set-up to test a new polymer. Storage reservoirs were utilized during this time.”
    ***

    When was the first spike in Legionnaires cases…July 2014? I thought that maybe the use of “reservoir” water [which may have been sitting for a while] might have been a good incubation place for the bacteria…
    ***
    Also, yesterday I read through a 3/12/15 report for the City of Flint by “environmental solutions” firm Veolia
    https://www.cityofflint.com/wp-content/uploads/Veolia-REPORT-Flint-Water-Quality-201503121.pdf
    ***
    One of the things they mention [and make recommendations to remediate] is the length of time water sometimes sits in the pipes, [me: which might also be a bacteria growth incubator, especially in warm months?] The system was originally built for a much larger population.
    ***
    “The hydraulic model shows long water age in portions of the system that appear to be contributing to the TTHM problems. ”
    ***
    Anyway…it seems that water operations and distribution is a lot more complicated than moving some numbers around on a spreadsheet. These [and more] ramifications/costs should have been taken into account before any switch was made.Why weren’t they?

    • bevin says:

      “These [and more] ramifications/costs should have been taken into account before any switch was made.Why weren’t they?”

      Because the system is run by simple minded psychopaths.
      it’s not just the 1%. There is a fair additional percentage of conformists, careerists and thugs who will do anything that they are required to do in order to earn a comfortable living.
      These are Snyder’s ‘willing executioners.’
      Flint is Everycity in the Empire. Children’s lives are being written off-lead poisoning; run down schools with demoralised, harassed teachers; bloated tuition fees to Potemkin Village Colleges, loans from usurers with puppets in legislatures……..
      Life is very cheap not in the East, as we were always taught, but in the West where capitalism is founded on the bones of millions of underfed workers, plundered peasants and disposable populations.

    • emptywheel says:

      Some of them were: a new report out today suggests that one of the guys who got fired from DEQ warned of a lot of the health consequences.

      I guess they ignored him.

  2. wayoutwest says:

    Legionella bacteria seems to be present in most water sources and the disease it can cause affects about 10,000 people every year so it’s not too rare. I haven’t seen a report on how the people in Flint were exposed, it has to be from aerosols and is usually from an air conditioning or other water cooling system where the bacteria can multiply.

    An earlier post claimed the high corrosion factor in the Flint water could be responsible for the bacteria growth but a recent email released from Flint claims that the phosphate compound used to treat the corrosion problem could feed bacterial growth and that was the reason for not treating the water.

    It’s hard to know what to think about this Legionnaires outbreak and if it is even related to the use of Flint River water.

  3. Peterr says:

    I tend to agree with your bottom line, Marcy, but I can’t say that it makes me happy.
    .
    The slow poisoning of an entire city ought to have been enough to get the attention of law enforcement, but apparently that isn’t as worrisome as 9 deaths and 81 illnesses.

  4. Kris says:

    The main fallout from this symptom of democratic decay will be the enormous social costs borne by the people of Flint, especially the children, in the next decade or two. There will be the inevitable consequences of lead exposure in the brains and bodies of these vulnerable children. Just as numerous studies have pinpointed the cause of the incredible decrease in crime since the 1970’s to the decrease in lead exposure, so now we will see the reverse in the children exposed in Flint. I hope, in the decades ahead, if we see increased violence and lack of educational achievement in Flint, that we accurately place the blame on this man-made catastrophe and don’t resort to blaming the victims themselves.

    • wayoutwest says:

      These statements about widespread ‘social costs’ or ‘consequences’ caused by these elevated levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water have little basis in fact. Most of the children who were exposed received less lead than either their parents or grandparents received continually during much of their lifetime due to much higher lead levels in the environment. Even white middle class children nationwide were exposed to higher levels from leaded gasoline and other sources including drinking water only a couple decades ago.

      Even though the local and national regulators failed to warn Flint residents about the lead problem the local people saw cloudy unpalatable looking water coming from their taps soon after the switch and many stopped drinking it. The latest independent study found that about 7% of Flint’s young children had blood lead levels above the recommended allowable level of exposure and a very few were actually exposed to levels that can be called poisoning. The taps in some homes were and still are producing poisonous levels of lead but if people didn’t drink it they didn’t get poisoned.

      This type of hyperbole used by some people in the media has caused terror and paranoia among Flint residents with parents of children with no elevated exposure blaming any anomaly in their children’s health on ‘the lead’. It was bad enough that they were lied to by their leaders about a serious problem but now some well meaning people and some with political agendas are terrorizing them with misinformation.

      There hasn’t been any causal relationship proven between lead exposure and violent crime in urban areas just theories based on circumstantial, but somewhat convincing, evidence. This will probably also be true for the supposed link between Flint River water and the legionella outbreak.

  5. bloopie2 says:

    I sure hope your headline pans out. But this: “Dr. Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher who studied Flint water and found high levels of lead, said it would be almost impossible to make a definitive link between the water source and Legionnaires’ disease. To do so, he said, would require matching the strain of Legionnaires’ in someone’s body to the strain in the water. We’ll never know for sure, but we did find very high levels in the time period when they were on the Flint River water.”

  6. Rayne says:

    wayoutwest (11:56) —

    “These statements about widespread ‘social costs’ or ‘consequences’ caused by these elevated levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water have little basis in fact.”

    Show your work here. What facts do you have to the contrary? While we await your facts:
    Childhood Lead Exposure (pdf; see in particular citations pgs 4-5)

    Gould, E. “Childhood Lead Poisoning: Conservative Estimates of the Social and Economic Benefits of Lead Hazard Control.” Environmental Health Perspectives 117.7 (2009): 1162–1167. PMC. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.

    Muennig P. The Social Costs of Childhood Lead Exposure in the Post–Lead Regulation Era. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009;163(9):844-849. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2009.128.

    Landrigan, Philip J et al. “Environmental Pollutants and Disease in American Children: Estimates of Morbidity, Mortality, and Costs for Lead Poisoning, Asthma, Cancer, and Developmental Disabilities.” Environmental Health Perspectives 110.7 (2002): 721–728. Print.

    Just for starters. Forgive the mixed citation styles. I don’t have time to fuck around with APA versus MLA. I’m too busy showing how various levels of government chose to ignore, then hide their avoidance of mass lead and biological poisoning.

    This:

    The taps in some homes were and still are producing poisonous levels of lead but if people didn’t drink it they didn’t get poisoned.

    This is “Let them eat cake,” in response to repeated governmental abdication of responsibility to provide safe drinking water — for which the people paid in many ways — violating state and federal regulations.

    Why are you here? What is the purpose for your comments in this thread? If it is to rebut the post, bring better ammunition. If it’s to piss on the people of Flint, take a number and get behind the governor and his staff. They’re doing a much better job of it.

    • wayoutwest says:

      You are misinterpreting and misrepresenting what I wrote and what it was aimed at. These studies are well used by policy makers when deciding what to do about lead in the environment but are being misused by amateur clicktavists and at least one big mouthed celebrity to frighten, not necessarily intentionally, the already traumatized children and their parents in Flint.

      There will be no ‘widespread’ social costs or consequences from this incident of elevated lead in Flint’s water system because there wasn’t widespread consumption of the water that had high lead levels. This doesn’t mean there won’t be some children affected and they will be added to the children who already had high level lead exposure before the water switch, about 3% of Flint’s children. Once the Flint water system and household piping are replaced there will still be children in Flint with high lead levels because most lead exposure comes from lead based paint which is mostly found in lower income homes.

      Now that the lead problem has been exposed those new children with high lead levels will be monitored and their levels should fall and those with much higher levels will receive more aggressive treatment. Some small number of them will need help in the future but there is no mass or widespread poisoning to stir up hysteria about.

      In this age of bipartisan neoliberal austerity wishing for or demanding government responsibility may be a noble crusade but will produce few immediate results as the People of Flint have learned. This is why when their concerns about their water were ignored they took their own actions to protect their children and stopped drinking this water.

  7. Rayne says:

    PJ Evans (3:41) — Thanks much, still trying to work in the Legionnella/Legionnaires Disease-related entries into the Flint Water Crisis timeline. I’ll make sure the timeline reflects this.

  8. Rayne says:

    wayoutwest (7:07) — This:

    …there wasn’t widespread consumption of the water that had high lead levels.

    You do not know that because NOBODY knows that. You do not know who was exposed to any toxin or biological pathogen because NOBODY knows that.

    The government deliberately avoided efforts to determine who was exposed to what, when, and how much. They did it by slow response, by obstruction, by obsfucation. We know this based on the documents obtained by FOIA, leak, media, public meetings, and releases by the governor’s office.

    As for Flint’s children’s blood lead levels BEFORE the switch over, that data has been recorded. Your argument that children were poisoned by lead paint and other environmental exposures has been punctured by the very study that showed children’s BLLs elevated AFTER the switch over, compared to data BEFORE the switch over. We know this much.

    You’re actively defending people who may end up prosecuted for deaths and poisonings across Genesee County, trying to minimize the damage. I hope you realize you are undermining any shred of credibility you have.

    • wayoutwest says:

      You are projecting again, Rayne so this will be my last comment to you and I won’t comment on ‘your’ posts about the Flint water crisis.

      I’ve based my comments on what the experts from Virginia Tech Dr Marc Edwards and his team discovered by testing a large sampling of resident’s water from Flint. They discovered that about 25% of the residences in Flint had elevated lead levels. This means that there is a large problem with old lead pipes but it also means that 75% of the residences had no or acceptable levels of lead in their drinking water and the people there were not exposed to elevated lead levels.

      My comments on the actual numbers of children exposed to elevated lead levels is based on blood tests performed on another large sampling of Flint’s children performed by Hurley Medical Center and reported by Dr Hanna-Attish, another expert. Their findings show that 4.9% of Flint’s children were exposed to elevated lead levels with about half of that number directly related to the water problems which is an alarming increase and a crisis situation but it also shows that 95% of Flint’s children Were Not Exposed to elevated lead levels. These numbers may be adjusted as more testing is done but I doubt they will change very much. My statement about lead paint being the primary source of lead poisoning is based on EPA research for the whole country and includes Flint.

      I’ve already condemned the regulatory agencies local, state and federal who caused and covered up this crisis and am waiting for those people who made the critical decisions to not treat the Flint River water to be brought to justice. Legionella outbreaks are relatively common and according to Dr Edwards it will probably be impossible to make a direct connection between the Flint outbreak, those deaths and Flint River water.

      Spreading fear inducing hyperbole, exaggeration and misinformation won’t serve the children of Flint or the cause of justice and you might worry about your own credibility, I’m not worried about mine.

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