Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder on Friday called for an investigation into the state health department and its handling of the Flint water contamination crisis, including responses to elevated lead levels and a possible connection to a spike in deadly Legionnaires’ disease cases.
The governor asked Michigan Auditor General Doug Ringler and Inspector General Alan Kimichik of the state Department of Health and Human Services to conduct a joint probe.
“The public health issues the people of Flint and Genesee County are facing warranted an internal review of how the state handled these situations,” Snyder said in a statement. “That preliminary internal review warrants an immediate and thorough investigation. I want some answers.”
The state health department in September downplayed independent research suggesting a rise in lead exposure among Flint children, a finding it would later confirm on or about Oct. 1, prompting an elevated response from the Snyder administration.
Records show state and Genesee County health officials also sparred over the response to an initial spike in 2014 of cases of Legionnaires’, a respiratory disease caused by a Legionella bacteria in warm, fresh water that leads to a severe form of pneumonia and can be found in large plumbing systems, hot tubs and air-conditioning units.
As The Detroit News reported last month, a Michigan health official delayed public notification of Legionnaires’ cases by issuing a June report declaring the outbreak “over,” an assertion Genesee County health officials fought. Four more people would die in the summer and fall.
Snyder, when asked about that report, told The News on Feb. 16 the state health department was under review.
The Legionella bacteria sickened 87 people between June 2014 and November 2015, killing nine in Genesee County. A Snyder taskforce has warned Flint area hospitals to do more disinfection work to ensure against another outbreak this spring.
The state health department, headed by director Nick Lyon, issued a statement Friday indicating it will fully cooperate with the investigation but will not comment further until its conclusion.
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said he was “baffled” as to how Snyder “can continue to push for investigations of departments that carried out his wishes, and then blame them for operating in a departmental culture he created.”
Ananich noted the Snyder administration did not employ a full-time chief medical officer until last month despite a requirement in the Public Health Code.
He questioned whether that decision “impacted the department’s ability to properly read blood lead levels and identify Legionella outbreaks, both of which put Flint residents in harm’s way."
Snyder released a 10-point plan to address lead contamination concerns on Oct. 2 , and he announced the Legionnaires’ outbreak during a Jan. 13 news conference, saying he was not apprised of the situation until two days prior.
The state health department last week issued a statement reminding the public that Legionnaires’ is more common during warmer months. With spring approaching, the department said it is working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify buildings at an increased risk for Legionella growth.
The department said it “cannot conclude” that previous outbreaks were related to Flint’s April 2014 switch to river water “nor can we rule out a possible association at this time.”
Nancy Messonnier, Deputy Director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said the agency was working with the state and county “to make sure as many Legionnaires’ disease cases as possible are prevented in the future.”
Snyder has previously been critical of the state Department of Environmental Quality, which failed to ensure the city add corrosion control chemicals to Flint River water. The harsh water leached lead from aging pipes into tap water.
The state helped the city return to Detroit’s Lake Huron water source in October, but residents continue to rely on bottled water and filters as officials assess damaged lead pipes.
Snyder’s call for a health department investigation comes less than a week before he is set to testify before the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in Washington, D.C. His testimony is scheduled for Thursday.
Separately, a newly formed state committee will begin to hold hearings Tuesday on the Flint crisis. The auditor general, who has already completed a probe of the environmental department, is expected to testify.
The Joint Committee on the Flint Water Public Health Emergency will not have subpoena power, despite a request from Ananich.
Chairman Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, said Thursday he has not yet determined how many committee hearings he will hold or if he will ask Snyder to testify.