Flint EM told how to minimize Legionnaires’ outbreak
Lansing — Flint’s last emergency manager was briefed in March 2015 on how the city could “minimize the potential for an outbreak” of Legionnaires’ disease cases in residential plumbing systems, according to newly released state records.
Then-Emergency Manager Gerald Ambrose was copied to an email a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employee sent top Flint utility officials as well as the city administrator about how to “limit the potential for legionella occurrence” in the plumbings of homes, records show.
The March 17, 2015, email from DEQ water regulator Stephen Busch is the earliest record that has surfaced indicating Flint’s emergency manager may have been alerted to a spike in Legionnaires’ disease cases that ultimately killed 12 people and sickened another 79 people.
In addition to Ambrose, the email went to then-Flint Public Works Director Howard Croft, then-City Administrator Natasha Henderson, water plant supervisor Brent Wright, then-Utilities Administrator Daughtery Johnson and Mike Prysby, a DEQ engineer who worked under Busch.
“There is currently no direct evidence of legionella in the city’s public water system,” Busch wrote. “However, actions by the City of Flint water system can help minimize the potential for an outbreak in customer plumbing systems.”
Busch and Prysby were recently charged with felonies for their handling of the crisis and alleged efforts to tamper with lead testing samples and obstruct a Genesee County health department investigation of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak.
The Legionnaires’ outbreak was most heavily concentrated in Flint-area hospitals during two separate waves between June 2014 and March 2015 and May 2015 and October 2015.
Records show DEQ employees considered taking samples of Flint’s water in March 2015 but never followed through.
No direct link between Flint’s water source and the Legionnaires’ cases was ever established during the outbreaks because no agency, state or federal, investigated the municipal water supply as a source. Wayne State University was tapped only last month to evaluate the possible link.
But in the March 17, 2015, email to Flint officials, Busch detailed several ways the city could minimize the bacterial threat through certain water treatment practices and monitoring for Legionella bacteria at the Flint Water Plant.
Just how government employees at the local, state and federal levels handled the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak and failed to notify the public is under investigation by the Attorney General’s Office, the state Auditor General and the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Clearly, everything is being looked at through all of the investigations that are going on,” said Ari Adler, spokesman for Gov. Rick Snyder. “We are in many ways piecing this puzzle together with emails just like everyone else.”
Ambrose stepped down as Flint’s emergency manager the month after Busch sent his Legionnaires’ email, ending a nearly four-year reign of state control of the city. Ambrose could not be reached Friday for comment.
Busch’s email to Flint officials came four days after he sent Genesee County environmental health supervisor Jim Henry a tersely worded email responding to Henry’s suspicions that the outbreak could be linked to Flint’s use of river water since April 2014.
“Conclusions that legionella is coming from the public water system without the presentation of any substantiating evidence from your epidemiologic investigation appears premature and prejudice toward that end,” Busch wrote to Henry on March 13, 2015.
The public would not be alerted until Jan. 13 when Snyder hosted a press conference to disclose the rise in Legionnaires’ cases. Snyder’s office said he was told just two days beforehand.
Earlier this month, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced criminal charges against both Busch and Prysby for actions during the crisis. Flint utilities administrator Michael Glasgow faces charges as well.
Schuette charged the two state workers with “willfully and knowingly misleading” federal regulators at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Genesee County Health Department.
They are accused of concealing water sampling data that showed spikes in lead contamination.
The charges against Prysby include two counts of misconduct in office, one count of conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, and separate violations of water treatment and monitoring laws.
Busch faces one charge of misconduct in office, one charge of conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence of high lead levels, and separate violations of water treatment and monitoring under the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act he was charged with enforcing.
Attorneys entered not-guilty pleas for both Prysby and Busch, who have both been suspended without pay.
Busch’s March 17, 2015, email was contained in a 3,800-page file that was live on Snyder’s website Thursday.
The Governor’s Office said the document was inadvertently posted online before being made readable in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. It was removed from the state website late Thursday night after it was obtained by The Detroit News.
Separately, Snyder’s office released an additional 6,778 pages of DEQ emails Friday afternoon.