Chicago (AFP) - The chief of Michigan state's health department and four others were charged with involuntary manslaughter Wednesday over the Flint water contamination scandal, the most serious criminal offenses leveled so far.
In what has become a notorious case, Flint's drinking water was contaminated three years ago, when in a cost-saving effort, officials switched to a more corrosive source that had not been properly treated to keep old underground pipes from leaching lead.
The contamination, initially denied by state and local officials, poisoned thousands of children and caused the deaths of 12 people from Legionnaire's disease, authorities said.
In the charge unveiled Wednesday, Nick Lyon, head of the state health department, stands accused of failing to raise alarms over an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that investigators tied to the contamination. He is the most senior official yet charged.
According to the charging documents, Lyon knew of the water contamination in January 2015, but waited a year to notify the public and took steps to suppress information.
Investigators claimed that he later stated "he can't save everyone" and "everyone has to die of something."
The four other officials charged by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette with involuntary manslaughter had already been facing other criminal charges.
The manslaughter charges are in connection with the death of Robert Skidmore, then 85, who "died of Legionnaires' disease after many others were diagnosed with the illness yet no public outbreak notice had been issued," the attorney general's office said in a statement.
Eden Wells, the state's chief medical officer, was also criminally charged on Wednesday, with obstruction of justice and lying to an investigator.
She allegedly tried to withhold funding for programs designed to help the victims of the crisis, and then lied to investigators, officials said.
The total number of current and former government officials facing criminal charges in the ongoing investigation now totals 15.
Investigators have said they are moving up the chain of authority in their probe and have not ruled out potential targets in the governor's office.
A federal judge in March approved a $97-million settlement requiring the replacement of all lead pipes in the city.