Nick Lyon, the director of Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services, is among the six state officials charged with the involuntary manslaughter in the Flint water crisis.
The involuntary manslaughter charge is based on an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, a type of pneumonia, that spread in the city after it switched its water source. The indictment states that Lyon knew about the outbreak but failed to take action or even inform the public.
According to NPR, the disease killed 12 people and left more than 70 seriously ill in 2014 and 2015.
Lyon, the state head of the Health Department, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office, felonies that could lead to as much as 20 years in prison, New York Times reported.
Dr. Eden V. Wells, the chief medical executive for the department, was also charged with obstruction of justice and lying to a peace officer. If convicted, he could face up to seven years in prison. Others charged include the former Flint emergency manager and former director of public works.
In a press statement released Wednesday, Michigan's Attorney General Bill Schuette said, "Mr. Lyon failed in his responsibilities to protect the health and safety of the citizens of Flint." "The families of Flint have experienced a tragic, tragic health and safety crisis for the past three years," he added.
The six officials charged are part of 15 current and former members of the department who are also part of a 17-month long investigation about the tainted Flint water.
In 2015, the crisis in Flint erupted when the tests found high amounts of lead in blood samples taken from children in the predominantly Black city of about 100,000 people. The more corrosive river water switch in 2014 caused lead to leach from pipes and into the drinking water.
Lead levels in Flint's drinking water have now fallen below levels considered dangerous by federal regulators, state officials said last January.
In January 2016, Schuette launched a probe of the water crisis. The investigation looked at "what, if any, Michigan laws were violated in the process that resulted in the contamination crisis currently forcing Flint residents to rely on bottled water for drinking, cooking and bathing as they fear for their health."
Before Wednesday, the allegations against the department head mainly focused on the lead contamination and on the ways in which state and city workers had failed to do their jobs.
Schuette said, “The Flint water crisis was and is a failure of leadership."
"A cause of the breakdown in state governmental management was a fixation, a preoccupation, with data, finances, and costs, instead of placing the health, safety, and welfare of citizens first."
The report also found out that the solution to the Flint water crisis was actually quite simple. The state could have introduced common anti-corrosion chemicals that would have cost the state only US$200 a day. But state officials didn't take this step in 2014, during the change in the city's water supply pipes, partly to save money.
Lyon's defense lawyers called the claims baseless. “The true facts simply do not support the prosecution’s claims,” Chip Chamberlain and Larry Willey, the defense lawyers, said in a statement. “This case appears to be a misguided theory looking for facts that do not exist.”