Michigan auditors will probe state health agency on Flint water

By David Shepardson and Ben Klayman

(Reuters) - Michigan auditors will probe the state's Department of Health and Human Services over its handling of elevated lead levels in Flint drinking water and a rise in Legionnaire’s disease cases, Governor Rick Snyder said Friday.

Snyder called for the state’s Auditor General and the health agency's inspector general to investigate the problems in Flint and surrounding Genesee County, and they agreed, the state said.

Snyder has repeatedly apologized for the state's poor handling of the water crisis but has rejected calls to resign.

“The public health issues the people of Flint and Genesee County are facing warranted an internal review of how the state handled these situations,” he said. “That preliminary internal review warrants an immediate and thorough investigation. I want some answers.”

Snyder, who will testify before a congressional panel Thursday, alerted the Attorney General's Office to the new probe. That office has its own investigation, which officials have said could include criminal charges.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit, in conjunction with the FBI and other federal agencies, has also opened a probe.

A county health supervisor last month told CNN that Michigan authorities blocked county health officials from investigating an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that may have been linked to the Flint water crisis.

From June 2014 to November 2015, Genesee County, which includes Flint, had 87 cases of Legionnaires', 10 of them fatal. The outbreak began weeks after a switch in Flint's water supply that also led to lead contamination.

Documents released last month show state officials knew about the Legionnaires' outbreak and its suspected link to water system problems in Flint at least 10 months before a public announcement was made.

Flint switched its water supply from Detroit to the Flint River in April 2014 in a cost-cutting move when the city was under a state-appointed emergency manager.

The city switched back to the Detroit water system in October, but the more corrosive water from the river leached lead from city pipes, causing a serious public health threat.

It is not clear how the water supply switch may have caused proliferation of Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease.

But officials said in the emails that efforts to combat contaminants by flushing the water system and using different treatment methods might have inadvertently promoted Legionella.

Legionnaires' disease can lead to severe pneumonia, respiratory failure, kidney failure and septic shock. It cannot be transmitted person-to-person.

(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington and Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Cynthia Osterman)