Judge Rules Residents Can Sue Federal Government Over Flint’s Contaminated Water Crisis

Published on April 20, 2019 by Athena Pallas

Flint, Michigan, residents have long blamed the federal government, particularly the EPA, for failing to intervene in a timely fashion to address Flint’s water crisis, and now a judge has ruled that residents can sue the federal government, not just state and local government, over that response. Judge Linda Parker of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan made that ruling on Thursday, writing in her ruling, according to The Hill, “These lies went on for months while the people of Flint continued to be poisoned.” Parker was referring to EPA officials knowing that state and local officials were failing to alert Flint residents of the contamination and were providing residents with inaccurate information that allowed the contamination, which began in 2014, to persist for years before residents were alerted and steps were taken to remedy the problem.

Flint’s drinking water issues began when the city decided, as a cost-saving measure, to switch from using Detroit city water to using local river water and, importantly, did not treat the new water with anti-corrosion chemicals. Those absent anti-corrosion chemicals allowed large amounts of lead from lead water supply pipes to leach into the drinking water, leading to dangerous levels of lead in the water, and high blood levels of lead in many residents, including many children. The change may also be behind an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed a dozen people. Routine testing should have made local officials aware of the problems with the water, but some of those officials allegedly intentionally underplayed the problem. In fact city and state officials denied any problem until studies from both Virginia Tech University researchers and Hurley Medical Center in Flint showed high lead levels both in the water and in children’s blood samples. So, although the problems started in 2014, it wasn’t until early 2016 that a federal emergency was declared in the area and Flint residents were told not to use tap water for drinking, cooking, or even bathing. According to The Hill:

A federal judge this week said residents of Flint, Mich., can sue the federal government over its response to the city’s drinking water crisis. Judge Linda Parker of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan said Thursday the government is not immune from a lawsuit. … Residents have long blamed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for waiting too long to intervene after a change in water treatment practices allowed lead to leach into the city’s tap water. The contamination began in 2014 but continued for years as local and state officials provided inaccurate information about the safety and issues with city water. EPA officials knew residents were not being warned of the contamination. …In the suit reviewed by Parker, plaintiffs argue that the EPA failed to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to address the health risks from the water or the inaction of city and state officials.

High lead levels in the blood can cause neurological damage, especially in the developing brains of children, which can cause them to develop intellectual disabilities, among other problems. That lead contamination can, as Judge Parker wrote in her ruling, have lifelong consequences. Parker wrote, according to The Hill, “The lead-contaminated public water supply system will affect the residents for years and likely generations to come. The acts leading to the creation of the Flint Water Crisis, alleged to be rooted in lies, recklessness and profound disrespect have and will continue to produce a heinous impact for the people of Flint.”

Under Judge Parker’s order, residents effected by the contamination will now have the recourse of suing the federal government over the EPA’s lack of action. Of concern as well is that while this alleged inaction by the EPA occurred during the Obama administration, the EPA under the Trump administration has had its resources slashed and has gone along with the Trump agenda of promoting fossil fuels and removing or disregarding regulations governing clean air and water standards, so that the EPA is less, not more, capable and willing to intercede if there is another water crisis like there was in Flint. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and the Trump administration’s EPA is pulling resources away from prevention.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons.