Residents of Flint, Michigan, can sue the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its handling of the city’s drinking water crisis, which has been ongoing for five years. The disaster has brought attention to drinking water issues across the country but Flint residents say they remain distrustful of both their water and the government.
Judge Linda Parker of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled April 18 that people in Flint are free to sue the federal government over its mishandling of the city’s water problems.
“[The court] can today state with certainty that 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,” Parker wrote in her order.
Two years ago, Flint community members sued the EPA for “mishandling” the crisis and failing to utilize the Safe Drinking Water Act to intervene and protect residents. Around 3,000 people are named in the lawsuit, which the government has sought to dismiss. Parker’s ruling does not necessarily find any federal employees negligent, but it does mean the government is not immune from a lawsuit.
“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,” said attorney Michael Pitt in a statement responding to Parker’s order. Pitt is representing nearly 5,000 Flint residents in the lawsuit.
Around 100,000 people in Flint were exposed to lead in their drinking water in 2014 after the administration of then-Gov. Rick Snyder (R) switched the area’s water sources in an effort to save costs. A subsequent outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease has also been connected to the deaths of at least a dozen people around that time.
Local and state officials, including EPA employees, were aware of the contamination but did not warn the people of Flint even as they were “poisoned,” Parker, an Obama appointee, noted.
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.
Parker’s order comes as fallout from Flint’s water crisis continues to play out at every level of government. In January, an appeals court ruled that the city is not immune from federal civil lawsuits. Nick Lyon, Michigan’s state health director, is meanwhile set to stand trial for involuntary manslaughter over two deaths linked to the water crisis following a ruling last August. Cases are also pending against other city and state officials as residents continue to seek accountability — including against Snyder, the former governor.
Michigan argues that Flint’s drinking water is now safe, but residents disagree. Last October, Flint community members told ThinkProgress they are still experiencing rashes and other health effects associated with their water, and that they do not believe the government has effectively fixed the problem. Many continue to rely on bottled water over filtered tap water out of concern for their safety.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) successfully campaigned during the 2018 midterms on addressing the state’s water problems and the office of Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) has turned over “tens of thousands” of Flint-related records to Congress.
The state has worked to set tough water standards in an effort to prevent future incidents but anger over water issues more broadly runs deep. In addition to Flint’s lead problems, several areas have struggled with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination, which is linked to cancer and other health problems. PFAS are often found in nonstick cooking pans as well as in things like firefighting foam.
Neither the EPA nor the Justice Department have commented on Parker’s order as of Saturday. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has argued that water issues are “the largest and most immediate” of environmental and public health concerns in the world, above climate change.
But under the Trump administration the agency has sought major water regulation rollbacks, with an emphasis on relaxing pollution controls. The EPA has also delayed setting a drinking water limit for PFAS, despite widespread public pressure.