Michigan Official Denies Link Between Flint Water and Legionnaires’ But Advised City 13 Months Ago How to Minimize Risk

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Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employee Stephen Busch. Photo courtesy of MLive-Flint Journal.
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employee Stephen Busch. Photo courtesy of MLive-Flint Journal.

The city of Flint’s decision to switch its main water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River resulted in a contaminated water supply and the poisoning of an entire city. Elevated lead levels in the water sickened many residents and sparked numerous cases of lead poisoning in adults and children all around the city.

There was also an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. A total of 12 people died from complications of the disease, yet state officials vehemently denied the toxic Flint water had anything to do with the outbreak. Stephen Busch was one of those officials.

Busch, an ex-supervisor in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Community Water Supply Program, downplayed suspicions that the Legionnaires’ outbreak was linked to the Flint water crisis while simultaneously advising city officials what to do to prevent the disease from spreading, MLive reports. In a March 17, 2015 e-mail obtained by the publication, the former supervisor detailed steps to reduce the opportunities for Legionnaires’ growth in resident’s drinking water. The e-mail was sent to city and state officials, including Mike Prysby, a DEQ district engineer.

According to MLive, Busch and Prysby are both charged with criminal misconduct for their roles in the Flint water crisis. Charges include conspiracy of tampering with evidence, tampering with evidence, and violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The publication also reports that bacteria and high levels of lead in Flint’s water supply are suspected sources of the Legionnaires’ outbreak that caused 12 deaths in 2014 and 2015 in Genesee County. Though rare, Legionnaires’ is a serious, often lethal, form of pneumonia caused by Legionella pneumophila bacteria. The bacteria can be found in both “potable and nonpotable water systems,” according to Legionella.org. The website states that 10,000 to 18,000 individuals in the U.S. are infected with the legionella bacteria every year.

Michigan health officials now report that the surge in Legionnaires’ cases and deaths can’t be conclusively linked to Flint’s toxic water supply, but there isn’t any evidence that it didn’t cause the outbreak either, according to MLive.

In an e-mail sent on March 13 to Jim Henry, the county’s environmental health supervisor, Busch asserted that conclusions concerning the tie between Legionnaires’ and Flint’s water were untimely. He also said it was unlikely that legionella bacteria would even be present in the water, as Flint water is treated with ozone and chlorine, MLive reports.

The news publication revealed that Busch emailed other top officials seven days later, advising them to take action and provide customers with “water quality that helps limit the potential for legionella occurrence in premise plumbing.” His email listed specific actions Flint city officials should take, including flushing water lines in order to remove biofilm, tuberculation and sediment throughout the water system, and maintaining pH and chlorine levels to prevent the growth of legionella bacteria, MLive reports.

Per MLive, city, state and federal officials were all aware of the possible Legionnaire’s/Flint water link, but the public was never informed.

The charges against Busch and Prysby are “only the beginning” Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette told CNN.com. Bill Glasgow, a former supervisor at the Flint water treatment plant, has also been charged for tampering with evidence, altering lead results of an official report, and failing to perform duties as a plant operator, the news site reports.

“Nobody’s ruled out,” Schuette said.

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