Flint — A confidante of state health chief Nick Lyon attacked the prosecution’s criminal case Wednesday as an environmental engineering expert testified that state officials provided constant roadblocks to testing Flint’s water for Legionella and other bacteria.
Shawn McElmurry, an environmental engineering associate professor at Wayne State University, was asked by Gov. Rick Snyder to assemble a team and study whether the Flint water switch in April 2014 had anything to do with the Legionnaires’ outbreak that happened in 2014-15 that eventually led to 12 deaths and almost 80 illnesses.
But McElmurry, in his final day of testimony, said he kept running into resistance about testing water filters for Legionella. He was testifying at the preliminary hearing for state Health and Human Services Director Lyon, who has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office over the death of Flint-area man Robert Skidmore from Legionnaires’ disease.
“I’ve testified that the state in general did not want to find Legionella,” McElmurry said Wednesday. “I said we thought it was a good opportunity to capture Legionella.”
McElmurry said he had a number of meetings with Lyon and reiterated that the health director said at a meeting that “I can’t save everyone” in Flint and that “he did not seem to be interested in, my opinion, protecting public health.”
McElmurry recalled an Aug. 5, 2016 meeting in Lansing with Richard Baird, a top Snyder aide on Flint, along with Lyon, State Medical Executive Eden Wells and another official to discuss what to tell the public about Legionnaires’ disease.
Baird outlined his concerns that included a belief that the professor’s study group was seeking “an accumulation of data to just build a career on exploiting,” McElmurry said,
Asked to explain what Baird meant, the professor said, “I just don’t understand it.”
But after the August meeting, McElmurry said he thought everyone was on the same page about what to do next about further water sampling.
At an Aug. 12 Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee meeting, Wells “warned me that the state does not want me to sample filters,” he said. “I told her this has a major impact on the science, but she indicated that this may be a red line.”
But John Truscott, a longtime friend and confident of Lyon who also worked as an aide to Gov. John Engler, criticized Special Prosecutor Todd Flood’s case -- which he sees as a “waste of taxpayer dollars.”
“If the attorney general saw this performance, he’d be shocked. And really disappointed and embarrassed,” said Truscott, president and principal at Truscott Rossman, a consulting firm based in Lansing. “This is one of the most disorganized prosecutions I’ve ever seen. I think it’s born by the fact that there are no facts being presented.”
Trustcott, who attended Wednesday’s hearing, said “it’s pretty tough to say that Nick had intent to kill Mr. Skidmore. He was in hospice for end-stage congestive heart failure. And that’s a fact. You can’t change that fact no matter what they do in terms of having other experts come up.”
Attorney General Bill Schuette’s spokeswoman defended Flood as a “tireless advocates for the families of Flint, the children who were poisoned and the dozen people who died as a result of Legionnaires’ Disease.”
“The Attorney General has full faith in Special Prosecutor Todd Flood,” Andrea Bitely added. “Todd has already secured pleas admitting guilt from 4 defendants, and we are in active litigation on many others.”
Meanwhile, McElmurry testified that there was “no distinction between HHS and MDEQ and the governor’s office” in regards to messaging and thoughts about Flint.
“They seemed to all be working together. Maybe initially I didn’t think that was the case,” he said.
Collecting water samples, even 20 of them, McElmurry said, was a “fairly easy undertaking that could be undertaken in a day” to see if Legionella was “blooming” in the water system.
McElmurry said for a $2,000, the samples taken “could have at least given you some answers that would have indicated whether or not there was a widespread bloom of Legionella.”
He called that effort a “low hurdle” to try and get information about Legionella in the Flint water system.
Hot water tanks in Flint, McElmurry said, had been identified as “potential reservoirs for Legionella” because they are very temperature sensitive and warmer temperatures allow for increased growth of the deadly bacteria.