Researcher says state health chief "did not want to find more legionella"

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FLINT (WJRT) - (11-17-17) - Nick Lyon returned to court, and Dr. Shawn McElmurry returned to the witness stand Friday after a brief recess.

Shawn McElmurry testifies during the preliminary hearing for Nick Lyon's involuntary manslaughter case.

Lyon is the state official charged with involuntary manslaughter in a Legionnaires'-related death tied to Flint's Water Emergency.

He was a bit more animated in court at different times Friday, shaking his head as Dr. McElmurry detailed the moments following an August 2016 meeting. McElmurry described the health chief's tone and demeanor as "skeptical" about furthering research.

"It appeared they did not want us to be sampling that, so I was trying to explain that we were only collecting water on the upstream side of the filters and not what was coming through," Dr. McElmurry said. "Because in my opinion it seemed like they were very concerned that we might find something that would be bad with the filters that they were promoting and handing out to residents to mitigate problems with lead."

That August 2016 encounter between Dr. McElmurry and Lyon also involved other top officials from MDHHS and MDEQ. They had just wrapped a Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee (FWICC) meeting and reportedly convened by a staircase at the University of Michigan-Flint, according McElmurry's testimony. He testified that he felt "cornered" during the exchange, which he claims was witnessed by then-councilwoman Vicki VanBuren.

At this time the group of researchers, headed by McElmurry and contracted by the state, had not yet secured funding for the second phase of the study, which included taking hot water samples from showers and other types of water samples for insight on legionella.

Lyon prompted Dr. McElmurry to explain to Keith Creagh (the interim head of MDEQ) why more water sampling was needed. McElmurry explained the need for the additional sampling.

"We thought that that [filters] was most likely to be able to collect legionella, and so we thought we would find legionella in more of those filters than other samples," McElmurry said. "Nick, to me and to Creagh and others, did not want to find more legionella."

Dr. McElmurry levied other scathing accusations against Lyon, painting a picture of resistance in a May 2016 meeting. He was caught off guard by what he heard from Lyon. Here's how McElmurry responded to special prosecutor Todd Flood.

"What did the defendant say to you and your team," Flood asked.

"'I can't save everyone,'" McElmurry said. "To be honest, it was definitely not a joke. It was quite disgusting to hear."

That meeting happened in Lansing. Other members of McElmurry's research team were present.

The researchers were stressing to Lyon that people were going to die and there needed to be sustained surveillance for a number of years to monitor legionella, according to McElmurry's testimony.

Lyon's defense attorney wanted to establish that the meeting was about funding and there was not proper context given for McElmurry's recalling of that statement.

However, McElmurry reiterated Lyon's comments were in reply to the researchers' urging of increased surveillance.

McElmurry's comments are similar to those of Dr. Paul Kilgore and Dr. Marcus Zervos, two members of the research team who have already testified in this preliminary hearing. They have all described, in one instance or another, a contentious working relationship with Lyon and MDHHS.

During cross examination, defense attorney Britt Cobb shifted gears, placing blame on water regulators. She was addressing testimony made by McElmurry Thursday.

Cobb stated water treatment does not fall under the umbrella of the state health department. McElmurry agreed with her.

Cobb's colleague, Chip Chamberlain, will continue cross examination of McElmurry on December 1.

Earlier in the day

The state's top researcher in the Flint water emergency says early awareness would have made a big difference in protecting children's health.

Wayne State University Professor Dr. Shawn McElmurry was back on the stand Friday at the preliminary hearing for Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon.

McElmurry says if officials had warned the public sooner, 42-percent of children in Flint would not have had elevated blood lead levels.

Friday marked the eighth day of Lyon's preliminary hearing. A judge will decide if he should be tried for charges including involuntary manslaughter in a Legionnaires' death.

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