Flint's Deadly Water

Five years after the start of Flint’s water crisis, FRONTLINE exposes its hidden toll. Our two-year investigation traces how a public health disaster that’s become known for the lead poisoning of thousands of children also spawned one of the largest outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease in U.S. history.

AIRED: September 10, 2019 | 0:54:47

>> NARRATOR: Tonight...

>> Multiple people got sick and multiple people died.

>> The doctor asked, he said, "Have you heard of Legionnaire?"

>> NARRATOR: A "Frontline" exclusive investigation.

>> I plotted out each one of those deaths,

just to see if anything stood out.

And, in fact, it did.

>> NARRATOR: What did Michigan officials know?

>> A lot of people didn't want us to expose

what was happening and why it was happening.

>> NARRATOR: And was there a cover-up?

>> Test the water.

They should have tested the water.

>> NARRATOR: Tonight on "Frontline"--

"Flint's Deadly Water."

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

>> There is nothing more valuable than water.

And Michigan is blessed to be surrounded by more fresh water

than anywhere else on the planet.

>> They're calling it the dawn of a new era,

miles of pipeline transporting fresh water to

three counties and two cities, but officials say...

>> NARRATOR: The idea was to turn all that water into money.

>> A new pipeline could bring economic opportunity,

could create regional cooperation,

and it could be, you know, an affordable, healthy source of,

of water for our city, long-term.

>> NARRATOR: The proposed pipeline was supposed to carry

low-cost, high-quality water from Lake Huron to businesses

and homes throughout eastern Michigan,

including the city of Flint.

>> The $274 million project should be completed

in early 2016.

>> And it was a way for this community to take advantage

of the natural resources that it's surrounded by,

and that could give, you know, our region

a competitive advantage.

>> NARRATOR: Instead, the pipeline set in motion

a series of events that led to an unprecedented

public-health crisis in Flint.

>> It's not safe to drink the water in Flint, Michigan.

>> NARRATOR: The exposure of thousands of children

to lead-tainted water would become a national outrage.

>> ...water has been poisoned with lead for months.

>> I think about this every single day,

and I still try to figure out what I could have seen

or done or asked, you know, differently.

>> Nearly a thousand homes still have dangerous levels of lead

in the water...

>> But I just didn't ever imagine

that there would be a failure at every level of government

with something as basic as the safety of drinking water.

>> NARRATOR: And overshadowed by the lead poisoning

was another problem with the water.

>> Most people outside of Flint look at the lead issue

as the main issue.

But the killer has been Legionnaires',

and people don't know that.

>> Two more deaths have been linked

to the Legionnaires' disease outbreak.

>> That was the one that I think they tried to hide the most.

That's the one I still don't think

that they want people outside of Flint to know.

♪ ♪

>> NARRATOR: In Flint, they still line up for bottled water.

>> Oh, my gosh.

Are you serious?

>> NARRATOR: Jacqui McBride started coming here

after her daughter got sick with Legionnaires' disease,

a severe and potentially deadly form of pneumonia.

>> I don't want the same thing to happen to me.

I refuse to drink from the faucet.

Ooh, Jay, you should have been here a long time ago.

>> Come on up, come on up.

>> Hey there.

>> NARRATOR: The Legionnaires' outbreak hasn't received

much attention outside of Flint,

despite being one of the largest in U.S. history.

But "Frontline" has been investigating the outbreak

and how state and local officials failed to stop it.

For the past two years,

producers Abby Ellis and Kayla Ruble

have been reporting in Flint.

>> One, two, three cases of Legionnaires'.

>> And they're a couple of blocks from each other.

>> NARRATOR: With their colleague,

reporter Jacob Carah, the team reviewed

thousands of pages of health records

and government documents;

spent months following the legal effort

to hold people accountable; and interviewed local officials,

residents, infectious-disease specialists,

and others to trace the story of the deadly outbreak,

which began more than a year before the world even knew

there was a water crisis in Flint.

♪ ♪

The outbreak started in June 2014,

when the first known patient showed up at a local hospital.

He was 54 years old,

suffering from what appeared to be pneumonia.

>> So, for that particular patient,

going to the hospital as soon as they had, you know,

high fever, cough, diarrhea,

you know, they know that something's really wrong.

They order a special diagnostic test,

which isn't routinely done,

and then they know it's Legionnaires' disease,

and it's now sort of a race against time

to save that patient.

>> NARRATOR: Janet Stout is one of the nation's foremost

Legionnaires' specialists and advised officials in Flint

on how to respond to the disease,

which is caused by inhaling water droplets

contaminated with bacteria.

>> What's distinctive about Legionnaires' disease

is its severity.

Almost all cases are admitted to the intensive-care unit.

The other thing that's unique about Legionella,

Legionella bacteria, is that it's in water.

So, if you can control the organism in water,

you can completely prevent the disease.

>> NARRATOR: Three days later,

another man was diagnosed with Legionnaires'

at a hospital in Flint.

In the week that followed, three more cases

at three different hospitals were reported

to the state and county health departments.

>> Because it's a reportable disease

going to one centralized location,

which is state and county reporting,

the people receiving... at the health department receiving this

are going, "I've not seen five cases in four weeks, ever."

So now you start to see a pattern.

This is not normal.

>> NARRATOR: By midsummer, more than a dozen Legionnaires' cases

had been confirmed, as many as Genesee County would

typically see in a year.

But most people in Flint knew nothing

about the growing outbreak, including Jacqui McBride,

whose daughter Jassmine was its youngest known victim.

>> I walked into that room, all I see is this machine,

these tubes, my daughter laying there stiff,

you know, just stiff.

The doctor asked, he said, "Have you heard of Legionnaire?"

And I'm, like, "No. What the hell is that?"

>> NARRATOR: Jassmine was 26 and had diabetes,

which made her vulnerable.

She was admitted to the intensive-care unit.

>> The first doctor kept saying, "Well, we don't know

if she's going to make it or not."

I didn't want to hear that.

♪ ♪

I think the same day she was there, somebody had passed,

maybe next to her, and had the same thing she had,


>> NARRATOR: Scientists we've spoken to

who have examined the Legionnaires' outbreak

point to a fateful decision, months before Jassmine got sick,

to switch Flint's water to a new source.

>> The first dirt turn for the pipeline, ladies and gentlemen!

>> Crews break ground on the Karegnondi Water Pipeline.

>> ...74 miles of large-diameter pipeline will stretch...

>> NARRATOR: For decades, Flint--

one of the poorest cities in America--

had bought its water from Detroit.

>> ...pipeline is expected to cost about $230 million.

>> NARRATOR: Water from the proposed pipeline

was supposed to be cheaper.

>> Thank you, Mr. Councilman, and the rest of the council...

>> NARRATOR: A point the county's top water official

stressed when he came to Flint.

>> Once it's completed, there will be several-million-dollar

cost reduction to all of the communities involved...

I saw a great opportunity for this poor community

to save money.

They would have a savings of two million their first year

from what they were spending just to purchase water.

>> Keep it on file so that we can begin the committee...

>> NARRATOR: Flint's city council eventually backed

the plan, but officially, they had little say,

because, at the time, the nearly bankrupt city's finances

were controlled by the state,

which went ahead and approved the pipeline.

>> And so we didn't have control of the water, the decisions--


>> NARRATOR: To help finance it all,

Flint's state-appointed managers had another plan.

>> It has been five decades since Flint

used the river for drinking water.

Today, they opened up the gates to start that process again.

>> NARRATOR: Instead of staying on the Detroit water supply

while the pipeline was being built,

the city would temporarily get its water from the Flint River.

>> ...until a new water pipeline is finished from Lake Huron.

>> NARRATOR: That decision--

without a vote from the city council--

would force the city to activate an old water-treatment plant

that had barely been used in half a century.

>> I certainly still expected that the same safeguards

would be in place no matter what the drinking water source was.

>> NARRATOR: But inside the plant,

we've learned that a foreman named Matt McFarland

was having concerns.

>> He said, "We're not ready."

He said the plant wasn't ready.

The funding just wasn't there.

The staffing wasn't there.

There was a lot that would need to be done,

and it would take time.

>> NARRATOR: McFarland died in 2016,

but while working at the water plant,

he regularly confided in his sister Tonja Petrella.

This is the first time she's spoken publicly

about her brother's concerns.

>> He would call me, and he would just be so upset,

and he would leave me messages that were just frantic, like,

"Tonja, you have to call me right away.

Please call me right away."

I mean, he knew that they weren't ready for this.

>> NARRATOR: As the deadline approached,

McFarland expressed his concerns to his supervisors.

One of them, Mike Glasgow, had concerns, too.

He wouldn't speak to us, but in an email,

he told state regulators that if the plant were to open

on schedule, "it will be against my direction."

He later told investigators he never received a response.

>> The city right now is just testing and treating this water.

They're not using it in the drinking water yet.

They hope to start doing that in the next few days.

>> NARRATOR: With the opening of the plant just hours away,

Petrella began texting friends-- at her brother's behest--

that the water wasn't safe.

>> I remember specifically the day before they actually flipped

the switch, he called me, and he said,

"Tonja, contact everyone that you know in Flint,

anybody you care about, and tell them,

'Do not drink the water.'"

>> This is our moment: three, two, one.

>> He said, "It's not safe.

We're not ready," he said, "and people are going to die."

>> Here's to Flint! >> Here's to Flint!

>> Hear, hear.

>> NARRATOR: Within weeks, the problems McFarland had been

worried about began to appear.

>> Flint is now getting its water from the Flint River.

It's not sitting well with some residents and businesses...

>> And this is what is coming out of the tap.

>> Water's brown, has a bad odor...

>> I was covering Flint City Hall at the time.

It was a regular sight, like, every week,

someone was bringing in a bottle of water that was discolored.

>> People were telling me as a councilperson

that they was breaking out with rashes.

>> We cannot drink the water, we can't cook with the water,

let alone brush our teeth.

>> That was real quick after the switch, some of those signs.

>> The city says residents won't notice a change in quality.

>> The message we keep getting back over and over

and over again is, "It's really not anything to worry about."

>> Flint city officials say drinking water

from the Flint River is now safe to drink for the entire city...

>> It was, "Not a problem, not a problem, not a problem."

>> NARRATOR: But what most of Flint didn't know at the time

was that the state hadn't required the plant to protect

the city's water pipes from corrosion.

They soon became a breeding ground for Legionella,

and people were getting sick.

Throughout the summer of 2014,

cases of Legionnaires' disease kept appearing,

reaching over 30 by the fall.

>> By October of 2014, there would have been enough

information to really understand that there was

a significant problem in Flint.

That would be considered a large outbreak,

and that would be an investigation

that we'd want to do right away.

>> NARRATOR: The county health department had started looking

into the problem.

And in emails, state officials were already speculating

that Flint's new water supply may be to blame

and worrying that word might get out.

>> Everybody that knows anything about Legionnaires' disease

knows it's in the water.

So you go and test the water.

And then you disinfect the water.

That's what's been done virtually everywhere else,

except in Flint.

>> NARRATOR: No one from the state health department

would be interviewed on camera.

But a spokeswoman told us the outbreak could not be

definitively connected to the water because, she acknowledged,

the water was never tested.

By the end of 2014, there were 40 confirmed cases

of Legionnaires', and three people had died.

Jassmine McBride had been lucky.

After three months in the hospital,

she was able to go home.

>> When I got out,

I had to learn how to walk, talk, eat.

I mean, it was just like being reborn all over again.

>> The oxygen, you're on that all the time,

or do you ever get to take it...?

>> Sometimes I take it off just to see myself,

but I'm on it all the time. >> Yeah.

>> NARRATOR: Her battle with Legionnaires'

left her heart and lungs weakened.

Her kidneys were severely damaged.

When we met her in 2018, she needed a transplant,

but wasn't healthy enough to be eligible for one.

>> You just had dialysis just now, right?

Your lungs are clear.

They've cleared out the fluid.

>> NARRATOR: Her doctor, Marcus Zervos, had been treating

a chronic skin infection that her weakened immune system

couldn't control.

>> My goal with you is to try to get those wounds healed up

so that you can get your transplant.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> What we're doing with this is tissue grafting.

I'm really happy with them.

They are doing a lot better.

>> I'm ecstatic.

>> You know, if I can get them

healed over a little bit more,

I'm going to get you an appointment

with those transplant doctors.

♪ ♪

>> NARRATOR: While Jassmine was recovering back in early 2015,

the head of Michigan's health department, Nick Lyon,

met with one of his epidemiologists

and was shown this graph of the Legionnaires' outbreak.

The epidemiologist noted that it coincided

with the switch of the water supply.

Lyon asked to be kept informed.

>> Neighbors in Flint joined together today

to rally against the city's treatment...

>> NARRATOR: Residents were still unaware of the outbreak.

>> City officials say the water is safe

and there's no need to worry.

>> NARRATOR: But at the suggestion

of the state health department,

county officials drafted an alert to medical providers.

It was never sent, according to internal emails,

because the person in charge wasn't there that day.

Instead, just 15 people were notified by email.

No one in the county or state health departments would explain

why the alert never went out.

>> It's totally unacceptable.

There was no notification sent to the medical society.

So that... (chuckles)

I'm trying not to be profane, but that's utter rubbish.

>> NARRATOR: Around the same time,

county health officials trying to confirm

if the water was the source of the outbreak

reached out to Dr. Stout.

>> And I said, "Call the Center for Disease Control

and Prevention.

They will come, they will do the testing that needs to be done."

And I thought... "Done."

>> NARRATOR: Emails show the county health department

wrote to the CDC right away,

saying they were now up to 47 cases of Legionnaires' disease

and needed help.

But state health officials had a very different response.

They told the CDC they didn't need its help.

If they did, they'd get in touch.

The CDC persisted, saying they felt a sense of urgency.

It was one of the largest outbreaks in years, they said,

and they recommended a full investigation.

>> Looking through the emails and starting to see how things

were evolving, that kind of resource on the ground--

boots on the ground, particularly helping

the Genesee County Health Department,

which was understaffed at the time--

would have been a game changer for the Legionella outbreak.

>> NARRATOR: But the call to the CDC never came,

even as more top officials became aware of the problem.

Though Governor Rick Snyder would insist

he didn't know about the outbreak until 2016,

emails show that by March 2015, at least three of his aides--

and two of his cabinet members-- had been told about it.

And into the summer, it continued.

Three cases in May, seven more in June, 13 in July,

13 in August.

>> Tick, tick, tick, case after case after case.

There's another one, there's another one,

there's another one.

>> NARRATOR: There'd been 90 confirmed cases

in the year and a half following the water switch.

12 people had died.

>> It is a very big epidemic,

one of the largest epidemics of Legionnaires' disease

that we know of.

>> We heard rumors that there were outbreaks of Legionella

that we could not confirm,

and we weren't getting any communication

from our county health department,

definitely no information from the state department.

They were strangely silent.

>> Developing now, a public-health emergency...

>> People in Flint being told not to drink...

>> NARRATOR: But once high lead levels in the water system

became public in late 2015, state officials had to confront

the fact that the water switch was having grave consequences.

>> ...levels of lead in kids' blood has risen...

>> I think that really was a pivotal point,

where people paid attention to a community

that just used common sense

and knew water shouldn't be brown and rusty-looking.

>> State officials say their testing shows lead in the water.

>> NARRATOR: With the crisis building,

the governor ordered the city to stop using the Flint River

and return to Detroit water.

Within months, Snyder and his top officials would address

the Legionnaires' outbreak.

An aide to the governor called

an environmental engineering professor

at Wayne State University.

>> He said that the governor was about to go onstage

to announce a Legionnaires' disease outbreak,

and he wanted to know whether or not I could determine

if the change in the water supply was the cause

of the Legionnaires' disease.

And I basically told him that I thought I could pull together

a team to look at this,

but that I would have to make some calls.

And he said, "No, no, no.

"The governor is going on in, like, 15 minutes.

I need an answer in 15 minutes."

♪ ♪

>> Well, thank you for coming today.

I'm going to share information that has been shared

with the health-care community in the past,

but hasn't really been put out to the public.

Over the course of 2014 and 2015,

we saw a spike in Legionnaires' disease.

I believe the numbers for the preceding years, before 2014,

we had six cases, 11 cases, 13 cases, and eight cases.

In 2014, we had 45 cases.

And then in 2015, there were 42 cases.

>> I'd been writing about Flint water for more than a year,

and I never heard anything about Legionnaires' disease

until the governor went on TV that day.

>> Thank you.

>> NARRATOR: The Republican governor was joined

by the state's top health officials:

Nick Lyon and the chief medical executive, Dr. Eden Wells.

>> Most of the time, what it's going to manifest

is as a pneumonia.

This pneumonia would not...

>> They say, "We can't conclude that the water

was the source of Legionnaires' disease in this outbreak."

>> MDHHS cannot conclude that this increase is related

to the water switch, due to the lack of clinical isolates

during the time period

and because not all of the cases had exposure

to the City of Flint water.

>> Well, let's ask the question,

"What would be necessary in order to make that link?"

They should have tested the water.

>> This is part of our efforts to be transparent

and share information as quickly as possible

as we can with the public...

>> NARRATOR: At the press conference,

no one mentioned that the CDC had urged a full investigation

eight months earlier.

>> This is certainly a bombshell, a game changer...

>> There was an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease

that quite frankly none of us knew about...

>> ...just shocking, because we found out

about a totally different disease and deaths.

>> NARRATOR: Within weeks,

Michigan's Republican attorney general announced

he was appointing a special counsel

to lead a criminal investigation into the water crisis.

>> I'm announcing today that Todd Flood,

a tough former Wayne County prosecutor,

will be joining me and working with me

in an investigation to determine what Michigan laws, if any,

may have been broken in the Flint water crisis.

>> People got sick, terribly so, and the water was contaminated.

And the public was in an outcry.

I have never seen a case like this in the history

of the United States before.

There needs to be an answer where people understand

and can hold accountable those, if any, who are at fault.

We didn't know if there was criminality or not.

It's always about who knew what and when,

and what did they do about it?

You take your evidence, and you follow that evidence

down the path.

>> NARRATOR: As the criminal investigation

was getting underway, the scientific investigation

into the Legionnaires' outbreak was also getting organized.

>> We started meeting with the state regularly.

And when we first started meeting with them,

they were very collegial, and it was pretty much,

"We will open the keys to anything

if it can help understand this."

>> NARRATOR: Shawn McElmurry had pulled together a team

of 23 scientists and experts from around the state.

>> We were all focused on making sure

that we didn't have another outbreak,

another season outbreak.

And so there was a lot of pressure to get this done

by the time summer started.

>> NARRATOR: But as the months went by,

the team says the state wouldn't authorize them

to start the search for the source of the outbreak.

Dr. Zervos was the infectious-disease expert,

and he was worried about the delay.

>> It was critical to start right away, because by June,

we expected to see more cases of Legionnaires' disease,

and there would be more deaths,

which is what we expressed in a meeting

that included top leadership at MDHHS.

>> NARRATOR: The scientists say they met with Nick Lyon

to urge him to step up surveillance

for Legionnaires' cases.

>> I remember my colleague telling him

that if he didn't do that, you know, people could die.

Unfortunately, Nick Lyon's response was that,

"Well, they have to die of something."

>> I, I was, you know, I was flabbergasted,

and I didn't say anything right then.

Although it was a situation where you're just,

I mean, you're just in shock as a result of him saying that,

the director of the health department.

>> NARRATOR: Nick Lyon declined to be interviewed.

In a letter, his attorney said,

"Director Lyon did not make that crass remark."

He said the team's work was one of Lyon's top priorities

and blamed any delays on the scientists.

♪ ♪

Special Prosecutor Todd Flood was also clashing

with state officials, as his investigation

began turning up evidence of misconduct and negligence

and an effort within the government to cover up

the water crisis.

>> Every single witness had a paid-for attorney

by the government.

Whether or not you were a suspect or a defendant

or a witness, every single one

had a government-paid-for attorney.

So we were going up against Goliath.

A lot of people didn't want us to expose

what was happening and why it was happening.

>> Breaking news right now from Flint, Michigan,

we've been following this all day long.

The state's attorney general...

>> NARRATOR: By the end of July 2016,

Flood had charged nine state and local officials

with crimes related to the lead and Legionnaires' crises,

including conspiracy, misconduct, neglect of duty,

and tampering with evidence.

>> Today three men face the very first criminal charges

in connection with the Flint water crisis.

>> We were starting very low and we worked out plea deals

with most of them to cooperate and move up the chain.

>> NARRATOR: As the criminal investigation continued,

behind the scenes, the team of scientists who were supposed

to be investigating the outbreak

was running up against resistance.

>> As we kept meeting with state officials,

there was increasing pushback about the extent

of data we would have access to, and more constraints being,

in our view, put on the scientific investigation.

>> We're not allowed, for example, to talk to patients

that had Legionnaires' disease.

We were not allowed to go into the homes of patients

that had Legionnaires' disease,

which was really a, a very big, very serious limitation.

>> NARRATOR: They clashed with Dr. Eden Wells over testing

residents' water filters for evidence of bacteria.

>> This turned out to be a really contentious issue

with the state.

They didn't want me to collect those filters

because they thought it might just cause more...

um.... might scare people more than it would provide

valuable information.

>> At one point, I felt personally

that it might even be impossible to be able

to objectively do the project.

>> NARRATOR: They also felt it was critical

to examine pneumonia deaths during the water crisis,

in case any had been misdiagnosed.

>> So there are some cases of Legionnaires' disease

that are not necessarily diagnosed

as Legionnaires' disease, but just diagnosed as pneumonia.

>> Okay, so did you guys look into pneumonia deaths?

>> Ultimately, that was one thing

that we weren't allowed access to.

It was deemed as beyond the scope

of what they wanted us to look into.

But as time went on, I, I came to realize

that maybe their interest in understanding things

wasn't the same as my interest in understanding things,

and that there were potential liabilities to the state

and to the people I was talking with.

>> NARRATOR: Dr. Wells declined to comment.

Nick Lyon's attorney denied the health department had blocked

the scientists' requests and told us Lyon was simply trying

to ensure the state was "funding necessary

and appropriate research."

With the scientists and state at odds,

"Frontline" was doing the pneumonia research

that McElmurry and his colleagues were seeking.

>> I kind of tasked myself to kind of just start looking

through the electronic death records system

at the clerk's office,

because the only place to start,

the only evidence you can find, is pneumonia deaths.

So I started looking in the timeframe of the switch

to the Flint River.

>> I recognize you. You've been here before, right?

>> Yeah.

>> Cool, thank you, you're all set.

>> NARRATOR: Over several months,

"Frontline" reporters analyzed every death record

in the county during a seven-year period,

looking for people whose cause of death

had been listed as pneumonia.

>> You have to go through every single death certificate

one by one.

Because there was really no other way to do it.

You can't go digging up bodies,

and, you know, doing antigen tests on bones.

I started just going through just the timeframe

of the switch, and I started counting the pneumonia deaths

that I found.

I thought I was crazy when I was looking at it,

because I kept finding more, not less.

>> NARRATOR: The state had put the death toll

from the Legionnaires' outbreak that ran from 2014 to 2015

at 12 people.

But "Frontline" found dozens who were said to have died

of pneumonia in the same period.

>> There was this spike during the switch.

It was almost three times more than prior years.

>> NARRATOR: As McElmurry and his team feared,

there were signs the outbreak's toll

could be higher than anyone knew.

>> Why wasn't a thorough investigation launched

from the state?

I mean, this raises some very critical questions,

if you knew at the time that people were dying.

♪ ♪

>> NARRATOR: We would spend many months in Flint

trying to find the true extent of the Legionnaires' outbreak.

But by late 2016, McElmurry and the other scientists

had begun testing the water and getting results back.

>> It didn't take us too long to start finding Legionella

in some of the water entering people's homes.

>> NARRATOR: Believing they should share their findings

with the public,

the scientists held a meeting at a local library

and said they'd found Legionella and other bacteria

in people's water filters.

The next day, Shawn McElmurry heard from Rich Baird,

a top aide to Governor Snyder.

>> I was under no illusion that every time I talked

to Rich Baird, it was as if I was talking to the governor,

and he said, well, he wasn't upset at my guy,

"but he wasn't on message."

You know, he needed to be on message.

He needed to "lead with public health," whatever that meant,

and basically said that, you know,

he didn't want to take away funding from the university

if I wasn't able to get on message.

I viewed that as just a threat to me and my team

about the work we were doing,

that we needed to better align our results

with what their position was.

>> And what did you understand that position to be?

>> That there were no more problems with the water

in Flint at that time.

>> NARRATOR: In an email, Baird told us

that he never tried to influence or pressure the team

"to do anything except abide by the terms and conditions

of their contract."

And that they failed to stay within the scope and parameters

of the project.

>> Just up today on the criminal investigation

into the Flint water crisis.

>> NARRATOR: By 2017, the allegations of misconduct

had reached inside the governor's cabinet.

>> a startling revelation, in-court documents

from the state attorney general...

>> NARRATOR: Nick Lyon and Eden Wells were now facing

involuntary manslaughter charges

for failing to alert the public

and covering up the Legionnaires' outbreak.

>> The department's chief medical executive,

Dr. Eden Wells, accused of threatening to stop funding...

>> The allegations are health director Nick Lyon knew more

than a year before this announcement.

>> Nick Lyon is presumed innocent,

but it was plain as day

that the Department of Health and Human Services'

state epidemiologist, along with others,

had talked to the director about the Legionella outbreak.

We're saying he had a duty to tell the people.

He failed to do that duty.

He then kept things under wrap.

The spike was continuing to go up, and sure enough,

in the summer of 2015, multiple people got sick

and multiple people died.

>> These charges all center around

the deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak.

>> NARRATOR: Prosecutors also accused Lyon and Wells

of interfering with Shawn McElmurry's investigation.

McElmurry and other scientists were subpoenaed

to testify about it during pre-trial hearings.

>> The crux of their testimony came down to,

"We were stopped or prevented because they didn't want

"to know the truth-- the government,

"they didn't want us to find Legionella.

"They didn't want us to find bacteria.

"They didn't want us to test samples.

They didn't want us to collect from filters in homes."

Why? Why?

Because they didn't want them to show

that the water was the actual source of the Legionella.

>> NARRATOR: Throughout, the state health department insisted

that the biggest source of the Legionnaires' outbreak

was not the city's water, but Flint's McLaren Hospital,

which it said was linked to nearly 60% of the cases.

>> First of all, not every case of Legionnaires' disease

came out of McLaren.

And second of all, if the state believed

that there was a Legionnaires' outbreak in McLaren Hospital,

the state had every duty to do something about it

and inform people about it.

That's not what the state did.

>> NARRATOR: McLaren officials declined to be interviewed,

citing ongoing lawsuits by Legionnaires' victims,

but pointed out that the hospital gets its water

from the city.

They hired Dr. Stout to provide testimony,

and to help them test for and prevent Legionella.

>> Somewhere around 30% or so of cases

had absolutely no healthcare association.

That means they were never, not only at McLaren,

but never at any of the other hospitals, either.

So the argument that the problem is the hospital

doesn't hold weight.

>> NARRATOR: Shawn McElmurry and his team

came to the same conclusion,

and in early 2018, published their findings

in a peer-reviewed journal.

>> The outbreak is associated

with the change in the water supply.

When they switched to the Flint River,

they didn't properly treat the water.

And as it went through the distribution system,

they also had reactions and things that...

with corroding pipes.

And so there are pockets of the city where you had

high amounts of iron, low chlorine, high organic matter.

And in those places,

it is very likely that they had biological growth.

So there's all sorts of indicators

that there was massive water-quality problems

throughout the time in which they were on the Flint River.

>> NARRATOR: The state health department publicly rejected

the paper, saying in a statement

the scientists had "only added to the public confusion,"

and that an outside consulting firm the state hired

was critical of their work.

Nick Lyon's attorney went even further in a letter

to "Frontline," questioning the credibility and expertise

of the team.

The state eventually released its own report

insisting there was "only one common source"

for most of the cases-- McLaren Hospital.

♪ ♪

As for Jassmine McBride, by the summer of 2018,

just shy of her 30th birthday,

she was still suffering from the effects

of the Legionnaires' disease.

>> 28th. >> 28th of...?

>> July. Celebrating my 30th birthday,

seeing that I was supposed to be gone in 2014

due to the Legionnaire, so... >> Mm-hmm, okay.

>> And I just want to be around family and friends.

>> That's good. Mm-hmm.

We're just here for some paperwork?

>> Well, yeah, but when I leave here, I'm going to the hospital.

>> Okay.

>> (weakly): I'm having, um...

some trouble breathing.

♪ ♪

>> NARRATOR: She was on 24-hour-a-day oxygen,

suffering frequent respiratory failure.

>> I'm about to just pass out.

>> Do you need something?

>> (breathing shallowly)

This is what I go through

when I'm having trouble breathing.

It's like I can't-- I can barely talk,

I can barely function.

I can barely walk.

(knock at door)

(door opens)

It's a scary feeling.

♪ ♪

>> NARRATOR: On this day, she was taken to the hospital

for emergency dialysis.

But because of her condition,

she was no closer to getting on the kidney transplant list.

>> This feels so...


This is not where I wanted to be.

♪ ♪

>> Nick Lyon faces involuntary manslaughter charges

in connection with the death of two men

in the Flint Legionnaires' outbreak.

>> NARRATOR: That summer, 11 months of pre-trial testimony

was coming to an end in the case against Nick Lyon...

>> Did Lyon fail to warn about the outbreak?

>> NARRATOR: ...with a long-awaited ruling

on whether the evidence was strong enough

to send his case to trial.

>> All rise.

>> You have a member of the governor's cabinet

who is still on the job as the top health official

in the state of Michigan on trial for poisoning people.

>> The prosecution has charged Mr. Lyon

with involuntary manslaughter.

>> I think maybe that is unprecedented.

>> Based upon all of the evidence in its totality,

I find that the prosecution has established

that the following crimes have been committed

and probable cause exists to believe that Nicholas Lyon

has committed these offenses.

>> NARRATOR: The judge ordered Lyon to stand trial.

Another judge would order the same for Eden Wells.

Both appealed the decisions,

delaying the start of any trials.

And while the appeals were dragging on...

>> Change in political landscape for our state...

>> The biggest midterm election in a generation...

>> NARRATOR: The political landscape in Michigan

was changing with a new governor.

>> It was a dominating night for Democrats,

winning a number of key races, including governor,

attorney general...

>> NARRATOR: And a new attorney general,

a Democrat who'd criticized the investigation

for not producing results.

>> I think we have to take a very close look

at those investigations, we have to re-evaluate,

and I think we should have career prosecutors

handling those cases.

>> NARRATOR: By the beginning of 2019,

the fate of the investigation was uncertain.

With the criminal cases in limbo,

we were still trying to determine the toll

of the Legionnaires' outbreak.

>> It's kind of like detective work: You look at the evidence,

you evaluate the circumstances,

and then you start putting these pieces together.

>> NARRATOR: After months of reporting and analysis,

"Frontline" had documented 115 pneumonia deaths

that happened in Flint during the outbreak.

In response to our findings,

a spokeswoman for the state health department told us

they'd noticed an increase, too, and concluded it was due

to influenza.

But independent scientists were telling us

that in all likelihood,

some of them were actually due to Legionnaires'.

>> I took the information from the death certificates,

and I plotted out each one of those deaths on a map,

just to kind of see if anything stood out.

And in fact it did.

In particular, the older parts of the city.

We found these clusters of people that,

around the same timeframe as the switch,

were dying of pneumonia and dying of Legionnaires' disease.

♪ ♪

We're in Mott Park.

>> NARRATOR: Mott Park is a neighborhood on the west side

of Flint where we found six deaths attributed to pneumonia

in the beginning of the outbreak--

triple what it had been during that time the previous year.

>> Did you guys ever think

there was something wrong with the water?

>> No, I didn't know anything was wrong with the water.

>> NARRATOR: Loree Moore lived here

with her nephew Marcus Wilson during the summer of 2014,

when Marcus was recovering from cancer treatments.

>> He was weak, but he wasn't weak-weak.

He was walking, he was doing everything on his own.

>> Did Marcus use the water here a lot, did he...?

>> Yes, he did.

He drunk a lot of water.

He would take showers and he would sit in there

for a long time and just let the water run in his face.

And I was, like, "Marcus, you okay?"

And he was, like, "Man, that water feel good."

And he would always just sit in there and just, you know,

let the water hit him in his face, you know, in the chair.

>> So he's sitting in there, hot water, breathing it in

right in his face? >> Yes, yes.

He would just sit there in the chair

and hold his face like this.

>> NARRATOR: Back when the outbreak was erupting

in August 2014, Marcus went to the hospital.

Doctors diagnosed him with pneumonia,

never testing for Legionnaires'.

A few weeks later, he was dead.

Without testing, there was no way to know for certain

if Marcus Wilson or any of the 115 people we'd found

had died of Legionnaires'.

But what were the chances that some of them had?

>> I'm a beat reporter, I'm not an epidemiologist.

You can talk to families, you can put dots on a map

and make assumptions about clusters,

but at the end of the day, you really do need an objective,

independent review of that data.

>> NARRATOR: So we took our reporting to Atlanta,

to Emory University,

where a team of independent epidemiologists

we'd commissioned built their own statistical model

to analyze the data we'd been collecting.

>> What a statistical model allows us to do

is to really see the forest for the trees,

to look at whether or not the difference that we saw

in Genesee County was actually statistically meaningful.

>> NARRATOR: The team compared the pneumonia deaths

to a control group.

>> The control group that we chose for this analysis

was counties that were similar to Genesee County

in many respects in terms of their size,

and income, and education level, and socio-economic profile,

but were both in Michigan and in surrounding states.

And so what we see here is that when we start in 2011,

we follow this mortality rate,

they're pretty similar between Genesee County and the controls.

And they're pretty similar, they're quite similar,

and this continues until we get to about the middle of 2014.

And this is sort of where the inflection point happens here.

>> NARRATOR: The increase was most pronounced

in the first six months of 2014, and less so in 2015.

It's not clear why, since Flint was still on river water then.

>> Right when the Legionnaires' epidemic starts,

the pneumonia death rate in Genesee goes up,

while in the other counties, it's going down.

So, we got this very clear divergence

when you plot that over time.

>> NARRATOR: After running the numbers,

the team concluded there'd been about 70 more pneumonia deaths

than normal.

>> That means that there could have been a little bit more

than 70 and there could have been fewer.

However, the most plausible number that we came up with

from our models is 70.

>> This is definitely consistent with the idea

that there were some Legionnaires' cases

that did not get diagnosed

and therefore did not get included

in the official count for the outbreak.

It's likely that the Legionnaires' outbreak

was bigger than that reported by official authorities.

>> If physicians had a higher level of awareness

about the Legionnaires' disease outbreak earlier than they did,

it's possible that that could have ultimately led

to fewer cases and fewer deaths due to Legionnaires'.

>> NARRATOR: We presented our findings and Emory's

to former governor Rick Snyder, who declined to comment.

The state health department also declined,

citing pending litigation.

The official death toll from the outbreak remains 12 people.

♪ ♪

>> The Lord is your keeper.

The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night.

>> Amen.

>> NARRATOR: Looking further into our data,

we made another discovery:

Of the people who were diagnosed with Legionnaires'

during the outbreak and initially survived,

at least 20 had since died.

>> Jassmine D. McBride departed this life on February the 12th,

2019, at St. Mary Mercy Hospital.

>> NARRATOR: In the end,

Jassmine McBride couldn't overcome the damage

that had been done by the Legionnaires' disease.

>> What was the cause of her death were complications

as a result of Legionnaires' disease.

She had heart problems, she had lung problems,

she had kidney problems,

and that resulted in her having a cardiac arrest.

>> If she could get up right now, she would say,

"I'm not suffering anymore from Legionnaires' disease.

"I'm not suffering waiting to get a transplant.

Thank God I'm free."

Jassy, you're free.

Rest in peace.

(congregation applauding)

>> She fought a good fight.

She finished her course.

And the victory is hers.

>> (singing)

>> She was angry and she forgave them.

She just wanted justice to be served.

(hymn continues)

>> A big story we are following tonight,

outrage in the city of Flint, Michigan.

>> People of Flint, Michigan, say they are horrified again.

>> A shocking decision from the newly Democratic

attorney general's office.

>> NARRATOR: Four months later...

>> A lot of us are really angry.

And we want to see some justice.

We want justice.

>> NARRATOR: Michigan's new attorney general

had ousted Todd Flood and most of his team,

and appointed new prosecutors,

who dropped all the charges against Nick Lyon,

Dr. Eden Wells, and the other officials.

>> When we first came into the investigation,

we had some very real concerns.

>> Some major, major concerns.

And when I looked at it, like I told Fadwa--

and I think I may have told the attorney general--

"We're going to have to start from the beginning.

We're gonna have to start from scratch."

>> NARRATOR: Despite two judges ruling the cases

should go to trial,

the new prosecutors say the previous investigation

was "fundamentally flawed" and failed to collect

all available evidence.

>> If we know the investigation was not complete,

you just simply cannot proceed.

It's very important when we say we dropped the charges

is that these charges are dismissed without prejudice,

which means these charges could be brought up again today.

We're supposed to have everything, look at it,

and make a decision.

That's not the way things happened in this case.

Millions and millions of dollars have been spent

on the Flint water investigation.

They've wasted three years for zero.

For nothing.

>> Here's the thing.

I know we worked tirelessly to put a great case together

and continue the investigation.

I know that, right?

And I can say that without equivocation.

And candidly, look, the facts speak for themselves.

We won.

We got the cases bound over.

We did things the old-fashioned way

of moving from the bottom

and going up in the investigation.

And the investigation for us was far from over.

♪ ♪

>> NARRATOR: More than five years after the start

of the outbreak, it remains to be seen

whether any of the officials at the center

of the Flint water crisis will be held responsible.

>> Flint happened.

People have to live with this for years, and years, and years,

and years, and years to come.

We are interested in justice, no matter how hard that is.

We did not choose the easy route,

but we chose the route that the people of Flint deserve.

>> I'm more than skeptical.

It makes no sense to drop the charges,

dismiss the investigation,

to start from scratch with the clock ticking.

I guess time will tell, but I suspect that justice delayed

is going to be justice forgotten.

♪ ♪

>> Believe me, it's been a long five years.

It's been five years too long.

This is something that has not really happened before.

It was man-made.

This was not a coincidence.

This was thought out.

It was calculated.

It was decisions made.

And those people must be held accountable.

♪ ♪

>> NARRATOR: He was embraced as a reformer...

>> He sold himself, he sold his vision.

>> People were mesmerized.

>> NARRATOR: But there was another side...

>> There were dissidents who were tortured.

>> Princes and big businesspeople

put under constant observation.

>> He seemed to get committed to going after his enemies

the more powerful he became.

>> NARRATOR: And then, a brutal murder...

>> Did the regime kill Jamal Khashoggi?

>> NARRATOR: "Frontline" investigates...

>> Even the President said,

"This is the worst cover-up I've ever seen."

>> Go to for more on the analysis

of pneumonia deaths in Flint.

>> Right when the Legionnaires' epidemic starts,

the pneumonia death rate in Genesee goes up

while in the other counties it's going down.

>> This is sort of where the inflection point happens here.

>> And what we know about the safety of the water now.

Connect to the "Frontline" community

on Facebook and Twitter,

and watch "Frontline" anytime on the PBS Video app


>> For more on this and other "Frontline" programs,

visit our website at

♪ ♪

To order "Frontline's" "Flint's Deadly Water" on DVD,

visit ShopPBS, or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS.

This program is also available on Amazon Prime Video.

♪ ♪


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