While I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to do my job well and report information accurately in my role as editor, when I mess up or fail to act, a comma is misplaced or a person’s name misspelled. It’s unfortunate, but nobody dies.
The charges recently brought against five Michigan officials in relation to Flint’s water contamination crisis, and the involuntary manslaughter and misconduct charges against director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Nick Lyon, made me reflect on the massive responsibility shouldered by those of us in the water industry. Though we don’t always think about it, lives hang in the balance.
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According to a recent ProPublica article, the involuntary manslaughter charges are unprecedented, marking the first time in American history that a government official has been charged in a citizen’s death for inaction.
Email evidence indicates that Lyon and other officials were aware of Legionnaires’ cases caused by under-treated water as early as 2015 but did not notify the public for another year. When these professionals failed to act, the charging documents assert that their passivity contributed to the death or serious injury of the citizens they were employed in to protect.
My colleague Janice Kaspersen distilled the details of the charges here.
In the past there have been officials convicted of direct involvement in environmental crimes. For example, ProPublica reports that Richard Smith, the pilot of the Staten Island Ferry who lost consciousness after taking painkillers, served 15 months in prison for causing the deaths of 11 people. Thus far, however, no one has served time for passive involvement.
In the case of Lyon, the charging documents state that he “willfully disregarded the deadly nature” of the Legionnaires’ outbreak and “exhibited gross negligence when he failed to alert the public…” Could this lead to an unprecedented conviction? Possibly.
In court last week, Troy Kidd, whose mother Debra died of Legionnaires’ at Flint’s McLaren hospital in 2015, told the defendants, “You’re responsible for the well-being of other people, you can’t just negate that duty and stand by idly and watch to see if something bad happens.”
Do you think that these individuals should be charged for passive involvement? What implications do you think these charges could have for water professionals in the future?