Flint health supervisor butts heads with state officials

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

When Environmental Health Supervisor Jim Henry started his job with Genesee County in September 2014, he thought he would be inspecting restaurants, swimming pools and residential wells.

That is what he did as an environmental health supervisor in Livingston County for 18 years. But the 46-year-old father of two wanted to return to Flint, the town where he grew up, and where his parents and relatives still live.

Instead, Henry’s daily responsibilities have included consoling weeping parents, consulting with top environmental scientists and butting against an entrenched government bureaucracy. Faced with the same choice, he says he’d take the job again.

“Absolutely, I’m glad I did,” Henry said. “This community needs help. I was born here. I recognize the problems a lot more than some others do.”

Like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, Henry went head-to-head with state officials about the safety of Flint’s water for nearly a year and half before Gov. Rick Snyder acknowledged the high lead levels in Flint’s drinking water in October; the governor announced an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the county in January that has produced 91 cases and 12 deaths.

“Jim is a very passionate person about public health,” Livingston County Public Health Director Dianne McCormick said of her former employee. “As this all unfolds, it doesn’t surprise me that Jim has taken such a passionate role in taking something that was wrong and making it right.”

Henry unsuccessfully tried to get the state to investigate whether Legionnaires’ could be linked to the city’s water system, which was switched in April 2014 from the Detroit system to the Flint River.

Henry’s suspicions were called “beyond irresponsible” by former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Brad Wurfel in a March 2015 email to top Snyder aide Harvey Hollins.

When Henry couldn’t get the DEQ to investigate the Legionnaires’ outbreak, he called the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — to the annoyance of state officials. Jim Collins, chief of the state health department’s infectious disease division, told Henry to back off in a Dec. 7 email, saying the CDC’s involvement “should be at the request of the state, rather than the local health department.”

At a Monday legislative hearing, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon could not explain why a health alert was not sent out to all physicians about the spike in Legionnaires’ cases in Genesee County.

“I do not know why a (health alert) was not sent out,” Lyon said. “We were working with the local health department in their communications on this — and they chose to send an email to specific hospitals in the area.”

Henry’s frustration was palpable in scores of his emails that were among more than tens of thousands of pages of government communications released by the Governor’s Office beginning in February, and another 4,000 handed over by Genesee County in response to a Detroit News Freedom of Information Act request.

In a Dec. 4 memo to Genesee County colleagues, Henry lamented that the CDC had appeared poised to investigate the Legionnaires’ outbreak before Collins declared the outbreak over last May.

Henry noted the executive summary in which Collins made the pronouncement was dated May 29, but the report wasn’t released until June 4, seven days later. Two new cases of Legionnaires’ in Genesee County had been posted on the Michigan Disease Surveillance Network website on June 1 and June 2.

“I think the Executive Summary was probably written on 6/4 and pre-dated 5/29,” Henry wrote in his email to Health Officer Mark Valacek and other county health staff. “I wonder what the Executive Summary created date shows on his computer.”

Asked about the timing, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jennifer Eisner said: “The draft was finished on Friday, May 29, and then reviewed internally the week of June 1 before being sent to the county on June 4.” Asked why the outbreak was declared over when new cases had appeared that week, Eisner said the report covered the period that ended in March.

“(W)e were making progress in our efforts with the CDC to isolate the clinical and environmental specimens for comparison ...,” Henry’s email continued. “MDHHS kept screwing up the clinical specimens in the lab, so CDC agreed to provide assistance.

“Jim Collins was well aware that we were making progress in this area with CDC. Some of the people at the state agencies are simply criminals!”

Eisner responded: “As for MDHHS, we vehemently disagree with his opinion.”

The state health department agreed in March — 20 months after an uptick in Legionnaires’ cases was noticed in Flint — to test the the city’s water system for possible links to Legionnaires’ disease. The state health department provided startup funding for a panel of scientists, led by Wayne State University, to independently determine whether changes in the water system led to the deadly outbreak.

Henry starts most mornings marshaling a team of Genesee County public health workers to go door-to-door in Flint to help residents understand the results of lead testing and deliver bottled drinking water. He talks daily with state officials and an army of workers from the EPA and CDC who are now on the ground in Flint.

He spends every free minute he can get, Henry says, with his wife, Carolyn, and sons Jacob, 14, and Charlie, 11.

“There’s a lot of contention, that’s for sure,” Henry said. “The challenge still is getting people on board because there’s all these agencies, and people all think they have the right opinion.

“There’s too many chiefs and not enough people willing to get their boots on and get the work done.”


Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.