Judge defends confidential orders in Flint water probe

Jonathan Oosting

Genesee County Judge Geoffrey Neithercut on Friday defended confidential protective orders he issued as part of a Flint water crisis probe by Attorney General Bill Schuette, calling claims they pose a risk to public health “simply inaccurate.”

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, acting at the behest of Gov. Rick Snyder, is asking the state Court of Appeals to lift the orders, which it says are preventing a full investigation into new cases of deadly Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County.

The situation “represents a significant threat to public health,” Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells said in a sworn affidavit filed last week.

The judge’s latest order directs McLaren Hospital in Flint to contact the county health department or federal Centers for Disease Control for any help related to lead or legionella, cutting out the state health agency.

But the department’s “suggestion that its responsibilities are being thwarted is simply inaccurate,” Neithercut’s attorneys said in a Friday filing. “Its responsibilities are being fulfilled, albeit through proxies.”

The judge’s order also limits both the state health department and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality from access to discovery materials, isolates, data reports, records and patient information related to McLaren from 2014 through May of this year.

In Friday’s filing, the judge reminded the court that Schuette and his team have filed criminal charges against employees in both departments as part of a probe.

“Under these circumstances, it would be highly inappropriate to give Plaintiff access to all the information involved in the investigation into Plaintiff’s employees, under the guise of trying to protect public health,” his attorneys wrote. “Doing so would compromise the integrity of the ongoing investigations.”

A Flint area Legionnaire’s outbreak sickened 79 people and killed 12 between June 2014 and October 2015. The respiratory disease is more prevalent in warm summer months.

Genesee County has six confirmed cases since July 6, and the state is especially concerned because it has not been able to help investigate one of the recent cases that involved a patient who had spent time at McLaren.

Fifty cases reported in 2015 “were found in and/or related to stays at McLaren,” Wells wrote in her affidavit, saying all state attempts to discuss the case with the hospital or county have been “ignored or rebuffed.”

County Health Officer Mark Valacak has said his department and the CDC are “perfectly capable” of handling the legionella investigation.