Flint Michigan residents can move forward with lawsuits against the federal government alleging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was negligent in its response to the water crisis, which exposed thousands of residents to lead-contaminated water.
In an April 18 ruling, Judge Linda Parker of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan found that the U.S. government was not immune from the allegations lodged by about 3,000 Flint residents in a two-year-old lawsuit.
The residents claim that the EPA failed to implement the Safe Drinking Water Act designed to protect public health by ensuring the nation’s water supplies are safe from harmful contaminants. The U.S. government tried to get those allegations thrown out, arguing a “lack of subject matter jurisdiction.”
Judge Parker rejected those arguments, writing that “The EPA was well aware that the Flint River was highly corrosive and posed a significant danger of lead leaching” to Flint communities. She also noted the water crisis is “alleged to be rooted in lies, recklessness and profound disrespect” from the government.
The Flint water crisis started after the state of Michigan took over Flint’s finances because of financial deficiencies. To save money, the state and local officials planned a new pipeline that would switch the city’s water from Lake Huron to the highly contaminated Flint River.
After the pipeline was completed on April 25, 2014, Flint residents began to complain of tap water that smelled, tasted, and looked unpleasant. In 2015, water tests showed many residents, including children, were drinking water containing dangerous levels of lead.
Investigations determined that the water system was never flushed with corrosion-control chemicals to mitigate the presence of lead in the water. As a result, the highly acidic Flint water leached lead from some of the older pipes before ending up in the homes of Flint families.
Lead poisoning can permanently harm developing brains, causing affected children to face a lifetime of learning problems and a spectrum of mental, emotional, behavioral and cognitive difficulties. Lead exposure can also cause infertility and infant death.
“The impact on the health of the nearly 100,000 residents of the City of Flint remains untold,” Judge Parker wrote in her order. “It is anticipated, however, that the injury caused by the lead-contaminated public water supply system will affect the residents for years and likely generations to come.”
She also wrote that the EPA and city officials mishandled their response to the water crisis, saying 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,” her order stated.
According to various sources, it took the federal government more than a year to respond to the Flint water crisis.
EPA Region 5 water expert and whistleblower Miguel del Toral expressed concerns about Flint’s drinking water in a June 2015 memo, urging government 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 warned. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and other government officials, however, continued to ignore Mr. del Toral’s concerns until the following year, when the state ultimately declared a state of emergency in Flint. But by that time the lead-contaminated water had already been consumed by families across the city.