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Michigan’s top public health official to stand trial for 2 deaths connected with Flint water crisis

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 13: Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Nick Lyon testifies during a hearing before the Environment and the Economy Subcommittee and Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee April 13, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The subcommittees held a hearing on “Flint Water Crisis: Impacts and Lessons Learned.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A Michigan judge issued a ruling Monday sending the criminal case of the state’s Health and Human Services director to trial for the deaths of two men tied to the Flint water crisis, according to CNN affiliate WJRT-TV.

The men, who WJRT-TV identified as John Snyder and Robert Skidmore, both allegedly died of Legionnaires’ disease after the city’s water source was switched to the Flint River in 2014, which kicked off the water crisis. Eventually, 12 people died and more than 80 were sickened as a result of two waves of a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Flint.

Nick Lyon, the director, was charged last year with involuntary manslaughter, willful neglect of duty and misconduct in office for the deaths of the two men, WJRT-TV reports.

Court papers say Lyon is accused of “failing to alert the public about a Legionnaires’ outbreak in Genesee County when he had noticed that another outbreak was foreseeable and … conducting an investigation of the Legionnaires’ outbreak in a grossly negligent manner.”

Legionnaires’ disease is a respiratory bacterial infection usually spread through mist that comes from a water source; it isn’t spread person-to-person. Symptoms include fever, chills and a cough.

During a hearing in May, Special Prosecutor Todd Flood said the city of Flint was stuck using the Flint water supply because it had already borrowed $85 million to build a new pipeline. He also noted a 400% jump in pneumonia deaths from the spring of 2014 to the end of 2015.

“They were stuck, mandated to use the water treatment plant regardless of what was happening,” Flood said during that court appearance.

Lyon’s defense attorney John Bursch told WJRT-TV Monday that not everything that happened in Flint is his client’s fault.

“(Lyon) is not vicariously liable for all 14,000 employees in the Department of Heath and Human Services,” Bursch said. “He certainly is not vicariously liable for the actions of the DEQ or even the governor’s office. To put all the blame at his feet is just ignoring the problems that were inherent in this whole mess.”

Despite the charges that came out last year, Gov. Rick Snyder threw his support behind Lyon and Dr. Eden Wells, another high-ranking state health department official who was charged last year. Snyder said both will keep their jobs and have “my full faith and confidence.”

“Like every other person who is charged with a crime, (Lyon) should be presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Snyder told WJRT-TV.

However, other local and state officials were not as supportive.

“The people of Flint have been traumatized by the actions, or lack of actions, by State officials,” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver told WJRT-TV. “This is a good step on the road to recovery and healing for the people of Flint. I hope that the State continues to be held accountable for the State’s decisions.”

Michigan Sen. Jim Ananich, a D-Flint, said “anyone who played a role in harming my city — matter who –needs to be held accountable for their actions.”

“The MDHHS director has the serious responsibility of watching out for the health of all Michiganders, and the reality is that he helped cover up a crisis and lied to an entire poisoned city,” Ananich told WJRT-TV.

Aside from Lyon, 14 other Michigan state officials were also charged last year in connection with the water crisis. Wells was charged with obstruction of justice and lying to an officer.