Researcher: Official helped gather Flint water emails

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Flint — A preliminary examination for State Medical Executive Eden Wells, charged with crimes including obstruction of justice, continued Tuesday in Flint 67th District Court with an environmental engineer testifying how Wells helped him obtain emails sent between state health agencies on the Flint water crisis.

Wells has been charged by Attorney General Bill Schuette with involuntary manslaughter, lying to a special police agent and obstruction of justice in regards to the Legionnaires’ outbreak that killed 12 people and sickened at least 79 others.

Judge William H. Crawford II heard testimony from Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer from Virginia Tech University, recalling his ongoing frustration at the difficulty of obtaining data from state agencies, including the state Department of Health and Human Services, where Wells is the top medical officer.

Edwards said in his quest to find out if an “environmental crime” had been committed he had filed “numerous” Freedom of Information requests with agencies for their inter-departmental communications. Some of those requests were unfilled and Edwards felt there had been a “missed opportunity” about providing the public with advice as soon as possible and also finding out who had perhaps concealed information.

“In my first conversation with her (Wells), I said ‘I think emails are missing,’ ” Edwards testified Tuesday under questioning by Wells’ defense attorney Steven Tramontin.

“Very quickly afterwards, I had the emails I had requested,” he said. “I was very impressed.”

Tramontin asked Edwards, one of the first people who came to Flint to study the water problems, whether Wells attempted to discourage his research requests.

“To the contrary … she seemed very professional and wanted to get to the truth of the matter in a timely fashion,” Edwards recalled.

Edwards also testified Monday in a separate preliminary exam for Nick Lyon, director of the state’s Health and Human Services Department, who is similarly charged.

In both exams, defense attorneys attempted to show Edwards did not completely agree with findings of others who researched the Flint water crisis, including Shawn McElmurry, of Wayne State University’s medical college. McElmurry had previously testified that state officials attempted to discourage him from collecting data.

Edwards disclosed that his own research team’s hypothesis — that in tracking high levels of lead in Flint drinking water they also would find dangerous levels of Legionella bacteria in Flint homes — was never met, although higher levels of Legionella were found in two Flint hospitals where nearly 90 percent of the cases were discovered.

Crawford will decide if there is probable cause for Wells to stand trial on the charges, which can carry up to 15 years in prison and fines.

In February, Dr. Marcus Zervos, a professor of medicine at Wayne State, alleged Wells threatened to withhold funding from a group investigating the 2014-15 Legionnaires’ outbreak in the Flint area and attempted to intimidate members and disparage their work. Zervos also testified Wells tried to conceal informaton related to the link between Flint’s lead-contaminated water and the Legionnaires’ outbreak.

Wells’ attorneys have told Crawford the involuntary manslaughter charge is a “physical impossibility.” Wells, they explained, took over her post in May 2015, and is accused of not giving public notice of the Legionnaires’ outbreak in December 2015. The man she is charged with harming died in June 2015.

Lyon’s exam continues next month before District Judge David Goggin.

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