WSU prof: State officials stalled Flint water tests

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

A Wayne State University professor tasked by Gov. Rick Snyder with helping investigate whether the Flint area Legionnaires’ outbreak was connected to the switch to the Flint River said on Friday state officials tried to stall his team so they didn’t find anything in the water system.

Shawn McElmurry, an environmental engineering associate professor hired by the state, testified Friday in the preliminary hearing of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon that the group was being set up to fail. He also worried the budget limits for the 2016 study would hinder his sampling and research because he wouldn’t be able to hire as many staffers as necessary.

Lyon’s preliminary hearing on criminal charges in the Flint water crisis resumed Friday after stopping in December.

Asked by Lyon attorney Chip Chamberlain if the health director deliberately tried to slow down the contracting process to affect his research team, McElmurry said things were “politically slow” but didn’t name Lyon.

“What I’m basing that on is multiple interactions with, not with Mr. Lyon, but MDHHS in general,” he said.

“Every interaction seemed to be adding yet another layer of complexity and things keep slowing down, down, down,” McElmurry said. “It wasn’t just one instance. Over the time period, it felt like things didn’t add up. It didn’t make sense.”

Because of the way the Flint water system worked, he was concerned the sampling of bacteria would be affected. “The longer you wait, the more that water system’s flushed out,” he said.

In court, McElmurry referenced an email he sent to members of his WSU environmental team that indicated Snyder was “shocked” when told “he needed to push if he wanted this done.”

In the same email, McElmurry said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials were not keen on filter sampling and questioning the scientific value of the study.

All of this, he said, led to conflict over what to test and then reveal to the public.

Chamberlain sought to cast special prosecution witness McElmurry as being alone in wanting to test water filters on faucets for bacteria in select homes.

McElmurry and Lyon had sparred over funding for the project and how quickly to test water filters in Flint for the presence of Legionnaires’ disease bacteria known as Legionella. Lyon said he didn’t think the filters needed testing; McElmurry did.

Flood’s team has been criticized by defense attorneys as taking a long time but he said in court Friday that the case is proceeding at a good pace, a comment backed by the judge.

Chamberlain sought to contend that Virginia Tech environmental engineer Marc Edwards also disputed McElmurry’s claims that testing home water filters was needed and would be effective. But his questions often were overruled after Special Prosecutor Todd Flood objected.

67th District Court Judge David Goggins rebuffed Chamberlain when he tried to ask McElmurry if Edwards criticized home sampling.

Testing by Edwards and his students helped expose high levels of lead in some Flint homes in summer 2015 after the city switched its drinking source from the Detroit area water system to the Flint River in 2014. He has also testified before Congress about the Flint crisis.

McElmurry’s group was charged with trying to determine what caused the Legionnaires’ outbreak that eventually killed 12 and sickened 79 others, but it found more areas of possible exposure that needed investigating.

“We were not certain that the epidemic ... the outbreak was over,” he said Friday, but added that the study group needed various areas of data collection to “be able to verify that indeed the outbreak had ended.”

Chamberlain also questioned McElmurry about the funding disputes and concerns by the Department of Health and Human Services about study costs.

In other testimony, Stephanie Whisiker-Lewis, an internist for Genesys Regional Medical Center and its associated hospice, said though her name appeared on the death certificate of Robert Skidmore she couldn’t determine his exact cause of death. She said she did not examine him or review his charts.

Lyon is charged in Skidmore’s death.

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