The water contamination scandal in Flint has led to plenty of legal action, but new lawsuit filed this week finally has some teeth. A coalition of advocacy groups allege that by switching drinking water sources, Flint officials violated the US federal Safe Drinking Water Act, meaning a US federal court could order Flint to replace its lead-pipe infrastructure immediately.
“We are asking a federal court to step in because the people of Flint simply cannot rely on the same government agencies that oversaw the destruction of its infrastructure and contamination of its water to address this crisis,” said Dimple Chaudhary, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC). The federal complaint was filed by the NRDC, the ACLU of Michigan, Concerned Pastors for Social Action and Flint resident Melissa Mays. It’s different from the class action lawsuits that have already been filed, because it’s not seeking monetary damages. Instead, the lawsuit wants the federal government to step in and do what local officials haven’t.
The Safe Drinking Water Act, which was passed in 1974, orders US water utilities to rigorously test and treat their drinking water for contaminants. It also allows citizens to sue government officials when they suspect these rules weren’t followed. This includes testing requirements that are part of the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, which was passed in 1991 but is currently being revised. Members of the EPA task force have come forward alleging that testing in many cities is being gamed to make the water appear safer than it is.
Water samples from a Flint, Michigan home taken in January 2015, via FlintWaterStudy.org
As NRDC scientist Kristi Pullen explained on a call with journalists this week, Flint has been particularly vulnerable because about 40 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, making these residents more likely to have existing health problems. Flint also has a large population of children between the ages of five and 16, who are more susceptible to lead poisoning. In some places, the number of kids in Flint with elevated blood lead levels has tripled over the last two years.
In addition to replacing lead pipes, changing water testing procedures and fixing the damage from lead contamination, the lawsuit also wants a repeal of Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law, which placed drinking water decisions in the hands of state-appointed leaders, not voters. “In a failed attempt to save a few bucks, state-appointed officials poisoned the drinking water of an important American city,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, “causing permanent damage to an entire generation of its children.”
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (who also held a press conference this week and named a task force for the response) said earlier this week that replacing the pipes wasn’t a short-term option. But Reverend Allen Overton, a Flint resident and member of Concerned Pastors for Social Action, said a $US500 million surplus in Michigan’s state budget could be made readily available to get the job done.
Melissa Mays, a resident who launched the local advocacy group Water You Fighting For, painted a bleak picture of life in Flint, where people are afraid to bathe their children and many residents have their water turned off — even though they’re still paying for it.
“For years the state told us we were crazy, and that our water was safe, which wasn’t true,” she said. “For the sake of my kids and the people of Flint, we need a federal court to fix Flint’s water problems because these city and state agencies failed us on their own.”
Registered Nurse Brian Jones draws a blood sample from Grayling Stefek, 5, at the Eisenhower Elementary School, Tuesday, 26 January 2016 in Flint, Mich. The students were being tested for lead after the metal was found in the city’s drinking water. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)