As Flint, Michigan, continues to recover from the water crisis that began in 2014, the courts have given residents another way to fight back. Judge Linda Parker of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled last Thursday (April 18) that people in the city can sue the federal government for negligence in how it handled the situation.
The decision was in response to a lawsuit that approximately 3,000 Flint residents filed two years ago against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its failure to use the Safe Drinking Water Act to protect them. The act, passed in 1974, is intended to keep public drinking water supplies safe nationwide. The federal government attempted to have the suit dismissed, arguing there was a “lack of subject matter jurisdiction.”
This case is in addition to more than a dozen lawsuits filed by residents against the state and the municipality of Flint after the water source of the majority Black city was switched from the Great Lakes Water Authority to the Flint River in 2014, causing elevated lead levels in the water and the blood of children. There was also a rise in Legionnaires’ disease and infant deaths and a decrease in fertility.
It took the government more than a year to respond to the health crisis. Per ThinkProgress:
In a June 2015 internal memo, EPA Region 5 water expert and whistleblower Miguel del Toral expressed concerns about Flint’s drinking water and begged officials to perform additional water testing.
“At a minimum, the city should be warning residents about the high lead, not hiding it telling them there is no lead in the water,” he wrote. But his concerns went unheeded by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and other officials until 2016, when the state finally took action and declared a state of emergency in Flint.
As Colorlines previously reported, in July 2018, the EPA released a 74-page report based on the agency’s response and actions related to the crisis. The report stressed that the EPA was passive in its efforts to remedy the problem, and said that it must strengthen its oversight of state drinking water programs to prevent another crisis. It stated: “While Flint residents were being exposed to lead in drinking water, the federal response was delayed, in part, because the EPA did not establish clear roles and responsibilities, risk assessment procedures, effective communication and proactive oversight tools.”
According to The Washington Post, the report concluded that “the federal government deserved significant blame for not more quickly using its enforcement authority to make sure state and local officials were complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as with federal rules that mandate testing for lead.”
In her ruling last week, Judge Parker wrote, “The EPA was well aware that the Flint River was highly corrosive and posed a significant danger of lead leaching [into homes].” She also stated that the agency and Flint officials “were not warning Flint's residents that they were being supplied lead-laced water. Quite to the contrary, the EPA learned that state and local officials were misleading residents to believe that there was nothing wrong with the water supply.”
Five years after the crisis began, residents are still concerned that their water is not safe and continue to use bottled water for many domestic tasks, from cooking to brushing their teeth.
Attorney Michael Pitt, who represents the residents in the lawsuit, told press: “The EPA seemed confident that they were going to have the case dismissed. And we are now in a position where the EPA will have to make another assessment of their responsibility for the harm that they caused.”