$722MM Lawsuit - Flint Water Crisis
The ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan has made national headlines and is testament to the importance of high-quality water management. After a financial emergency in 2011, the city of Flint was controlled by a set of “emergency managers” who implemented a series of cost-cutting measures to balance the city’s finances. In 2014, the managers decided to switch the city’s water source from the pre-treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water over to the Flint River, which ran adjacent to the town.
Flint River’s water proved to be dirty and dangerous. The new water source carried corrosive compounds that, though easily treated, were left untreated by city's water managers. The consequence has been a public health emergency for the city's 102,000 residents, whose lead pipes began to leach and silently poison the families of Flint. A federally-designated public health state of emergency, Flint's lead crisis leaves thousands at risk for long-term health problems and has resulted in criminal charges filed against 9 officials. The crisis is ongoing, and it is unclear if, when or how it will be resolved in the future.
The crisis is also a powerful example of environmental racism and environmental injustice. According to the US Census Bureau, the population of Flint is 57% black, 37% white, 4% Latino and 4% mixed-race; and approximately 41% of its residents live below the poverty line. Many residents and social justice advocates argue that race and poverty influenced how city and state officials acted, with reckless decisions, indifference, and even criminality. This has created a devastating pollution problem in an already disadvantaged city. So as residents of Flint and their allies fight for clean water in their city, they are also fighting for environmental justice for their community, and nationwide.
Foundation of A Crisis
Flint, Michigan–located just outside of Detroit–was once a major hub for the auto manufacturing business, but as northern Michigan watched their manufacturing stronghold vanish, the Flint economy declined along with it. In 2011, decreased production, rising unemployment, and a related drop in tax revenue culminated in a city budget crisis that put Flint in danger of bankruptcy.
Michigan has a unique statute that empowers the Governor to declare an official “financial emergency” and appoint an emergency finance manager to power when the city is under duress. Michigan Gov. Rick Scott did just that and appointed Michael K. Brown, a former Flint mayor, as the Emergency Manager to salvage the city’s finances. Brown took the cold sword of austerity to Flint and in 2011 the city's budget was cut and reforms were instituted. These included, among other measures, cutting city employees’ pension and health care benefits, reducing non-essential city staff, and increasing residents’ water and sewage fees. Cuts were widespread and had substantial impacts on the lives of Flint’s residents.
The following year, Brown and other city and state officials turned to the city's drinking water system as a place to cut costs. The city was struggling to keep up with water bills from the Detroit Water and Sewer District service. In April 2013 these officials decided to construct a pipeline to connect Flint to the nearby Karegnondi Water Authority’s (KWA) water system. This was projected to save the region $200 million over 25 years. Shortly after that, Detroit Water notified Brown that it would stop delivering water to Flint effective one year later, in April 2014.
Flint then had a problem: between April 2014 and the completion of the KWA connection, Flint would need an alternative water source.
The city decided to source its water from the nearby Flint River until the KWA connection was completed. The river was considered a reasonable option: the city had used it as its primary water source up until 1960, so there was some history to point toward. However, the river water quality became severely degraded during the 1970s.
In response to many resident concerns about the river’s potentially-poor water quality, the city contracted tests from independent organizations and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Office of Drinking Water before the switchover. The DEQ office reported that Flint met drinking water standards and was, in the words of Mayor Dane Walling, “regular, good, pure drinking water, and it’s right in our backyard.”
The First Signs of Danger
The city made the switch from Detroit water to the Flint River on April 25, 2014, and made yet another egregious mistake: it decided to not fully treat the Flint River water with anti-corrosives before it went into the city’s lead-piped water system. “Instead,” an NPR article reports, “they took what Michigan Radio characterized as a ‘wait-and-see’ approach.”
But lead wasn't the first water quality problem Flint faced. A month into using Flint River water, some residents complained about the smell and color of the new water, which was 70% harder than the Detroit system (“Hardness” is a measure of magnesium and calcium in water that alters water taste). After an E. coli outbreak in 2014, the city began using chlorine to kill off the E. coli. Yet chlorine treatments can have unwanted side effects, and Flint's post-chlorination drinking water was “in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act because of high levels of a disinfectant byproduct called total trihalomethanes — an unintended consequence from all the chlorine the city had to use to kill the E. coli.” Residents were experiencing rashes and other health problems, and many were concerned about their well-being.
Amidst these water quality problems, Flint failed to adequately manage the water's acidity, and the city's lead pipes began to leach lead into people's taps. This was first noticed by the auto industry: the town’s General Motors plant stopped using Flint’s municipal water on October 13, 2014 because managers feared that the river’s water would damage their parts. Residents began noticing that their water smelled strange and looked discolored and brought their concerns to city officials, but these pleas were largely ignored and discarded–and residents were left without any help to test or treat their taps.
One resident eventually took matters into her own hands. Lee Ann Walters began noticing that her children were facing significant health problems in August 2014: they had rashes on their skin and their hair was falling out. One of her toddler twin sons was even diagnosed with lead poisoning. Walters also saw that water coming out of her taps had a brown tinge and pungent smell – and she discovered that many of her neighbors had the same water quality issues.
Walters reached out to city and state officials, but they responded that she had no reason to be concerned. Walters decided to seek a water quality expert and came across Marc Edwards, a researcher from Virginia Tech University who had historically studied lead in water. Edwards took on Walter's case and tested her tap water.
The results were startling. Edwards found lead levels higher than he had seen in 25 years of research. The results sparked outrage and his team demanded more information. Edwards became invested in Flint’s water quality problems, donating significant time and $160,000 of his own money to investigate the community's unfolding crisis.
His research expanded beyond just water quality: eventually, Edwards' team found that city officials had known about lead issues but ignored them entirely. Interviewed by NPR in September 2015, Edwards even noted that “Flint is the only city in America that I’m aware of that does not have a corrosion control plan.”
What The Tests Showed
Walter’s initial concerns and Edwards’ research finally gained enough traction that the city began testing taps. On February 25, 2015, the city tested Walter’s home and found a lead content of 104 parts per billion (ppb). The EPA limit for lead in drinking water is 15 ppb. By April 2015, Walters’ daughter was diagnosed with lead poisoning, and her tap water was discovered to contain 13,200 ppb at its highest concentration. Water is labeled hazardous waste at 5000 ppb.
Over the next several months, assorted tests discovered high lead water levels across the city and the water was severely discolored and undrinkable. Lead poisoning especially affected the city’s children, who are more vulnerable to the consequences of lead because their brains and nervous systems are still developing. A study in September found that children had elevated blood lead levels post-Flint River water (4.0% compared to 2.1% lead levels), and 2 specific ZIP Codes (48503 and 48504) jumped even higher, from 2.5% up to 6.1%.
Taking Action and Switching Sources
On October 2015, an action plan from Gov. Rick Snyder offered free filters and water testing to Flint residents, and on October 16 the city switched back to the Detroit Water Supply (now called the Great Lakes Water Authority). Unfortunately, the pipes had already been corroded to the point that that they continued to release lead even with cleaner water flows - and the filters provided by the state were simply not effective enough to remove all of the lead.
On December 14, 2015, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency, and in January 2016 both Gov. Rick Snyder and President Obama also declared Flint's water crisis a state of emergency. The federal declaration allowed for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to begin providing support to Flint–federal funding helped cover the cost of getting residents clean water, including bottled water and water filters.
In 2016, after the switch back to the Great Lakes Water Authority, the Flint Utilities Department finally reinstated corrosion control procedures during water treatment. A team of researchers from Virginia Tech University found that the lead content of the water gradually decreased over the course of 2016 – and much of the city’s tap water has now regained clarity in smell and odor. At least half of the taps tested were well within federal safety standards.
Unfortunately, this still leaves many taps that do not meet those standards. There are also other reports that unfiltered tap water is still unsafe to drink and residents don’t necessarily know which taps are safe or unsafe, which leaves many residents in limbo as to what to do. Many are simply waiting for the pipes to be replaced and relying on unsustainable bottled water in the meantime.
Given the gradual progress, the federal state of emergency officially ended on August 14, 2016: this removed federal funding and oversight. Flint water is now back on the State to manage the full costs of recovery efforts. Officials have emphasized that residents should still use caution when using their tap water, and the state will continue to provide bottled water where needed.
Full recovery is also going to be incredibly costly, but the state is moving forward. In June 2016, a city report outlined that it would cost approximately $216 million and take nearly a decade to finish replacing the city’s pipes. In December 2016 the U.S. Congress approved $170 million for recovery efforts; the state of Michigan has not yet set an exact number for its funding.
Despite the physical pollution, it is the political, regulatory, and environmental justice aspects of this crisis that have caused the largest outcry. From early on it was clear that a major water crisis happening in the city, but local and state water officials did not address the issues even when residents raised concerns; it took an outside researcher and citizens’ advocacy to finally get water tested. Throughout the crisis there were actions that were inappropriate and clearly illegal: among other things, the city did not have a corrosion control plan, treatment plant staff did not do sufficient testing and misled state officials about plant’s compliance with lead and copper rules, and 3 state employees even suppressed a report showing elevated lead blood levels in Flint’s children.
Criminal charges have been filed against 9 city and state officials, mainly related to conspiracy, fraud and tampering with evidence. There are also ongoing lawsuits against two corporations including Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam (LAN), which performed the initial testing of the Flint River in 2014 and did not inform city officials about potential corrosive compounds and a need to treat the water.
There have been hearings and protests around the city and nationwide – especially by public health and environmental justice advocates. The people of Flint and their allies will keep pushing toward reliable, clean and fresh water well into the future. They will also push for accountability from the officials and agencies who contributed to the crisis itself, which is a clear step–far too late–for environmental justice in Flint itself.
Congress closed its investigation into the crisis in December of 2016. As of early 2017, the pressure has amounted to a $722MM lawsuit filed against the EPA on behalf of 1,700 most affected Flint residents.
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