How A Civil Suit Against A Private Water Company Could Help Rick Snyder Escape Blame For Flint

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CARLOS OSORIO
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CARLOS OSORIO

On Wednesday, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette filed a civil lawsuit against a private water company and an engineering company for their role in the Flint water crisis. But some advocates warned that the lawsuit could serve as one more way for Gov. Rick Snyder (R) to avoid blame for the tainting of the city’s water with lead.

Schuette’s lawsuit charges Veolia, a private water corporation, with fraud, professional negligence, and public nuisance. The company was brought in by the city of Flint in February of 2015 to assess the quality of its drinking water, nearly a year after it had switched sources to the Flint River and failed to use corrosion control chemicals that keep lead pipes from leeching into water. Its report said that the city was in compliance with state and federal regulations and met drinking water standards and didn’t raise the question of the use of corrosion control chemicals.

How Racism And Anti-Tax Fervor Laid The Groundwork For Flint’s Water CrisisFirst Flint’s auto manufacturing benefactor began cutting jobs. Then white flight pulled people into the suburbs…thinkprogress.orgThe lawsuit alleges that Veolia failed to recognize a growing public health crisis and that the recommendations it made would have made the leeching of lead even worse. It charges the company with fraud for making “false and misleading statements” to the public by saying the water was safe and in compliance. It also alleges professional negligence for the fact that it should have known that the water needed to be treated to avoid corrosion, and accuses Veolia of ignoring warning signs that included Flint residents complaining of the water’s brown color. The third charge of public nuisance is for allegations that it “irresponsibly interfered” with the public’s right to safe water. The engineering company, Lockwood, Andrews & Newman (LAN), is also charged with professional negligence and public nuisance.

In a statement, Veolia called the allegations “inaccurate and unwarranted,” saying its work for the city was unrelated to lead but instead was to address concerns about byproducts from disinfection chemicals, discoloration, and complaints of bad taste and odor. “In fact, lead and copper testing were specifically not included in the company’s scope of work because the city represented that it was itself conducting required testing at the time of our analysis,” the statement reads. “Veolia North America stands by the analysis provided to Flint under a limited scope in February 2015 and will defend itself to prove there was no wrongdoing or responsibility for the current crisis.”

In response to a request for comment, a LAN spokesperson said in a statement, “The Attorney General has blatantly mischaracterized the role of LAN’s service to Flint,” arguing that the decision not to use corrosion control chemicals was made by the city and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. “Contrary to statements by the Attorney General, LAN was not hired to operate the plant and had no responsibility for water quality, but, and although LAN was not asked, LAN had regularly advised that corrosion control should be added and that the system needed to be fully tested before going online,” the spokesperson said. “We are surprised and disappointed that the State would change direction and wrongfully accuse LAN of acting improperly. LAN will vigorously defend itself against these unfounded claims.”

The attorney general is using this as a way to deflect blame away from the people who are really responsible.

Advocates for Flint residents were mixed in their reaction to the lawsuit. Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit that opposes privatizing water systems, applauded it. “Veolia, the largest for-profit water service company in the world, has a terrible track record with a long history of problems, from over-billing customers to poor performance and willful misconduct,” Executive Director Wenonah Hauter said in a statement. “This development once again highlights that for-profit entities such as Veolia should have no role in the provision of drinking water.”

Residents have already sounded the alarm over the potential privatization of their water source after finding that the city was in talks with private companies like Veolia. Lonnie Scott, executive director of advocacy group Progress Michigan, agreed that the lawsuit proves that’s not the way to go. “This is a failure of privatization,” he told ThinkProgress. “It shows privatization is not the panacea Republicans want you to believe.”

But he also argued that it could be one more way for Snyder to avoid taking responsibility for what happened. “Anyone who has any accountability for the Flint water crisis should be held accountable,” Scott said. “If [the companies] were involved in any way, they should be held accountable.”

Yet he argued that it is a way for Schuette to shield Snyder and his administration. “The attorney general is using this as a way to deflect blame away from the people who are really responsible, which is the Snyder administration,” he said. A report released by an investigatory panel tasked with finding the root causes of the Flint crisis in March laid the blame on the governor’s administration, finding that “the state is fundamentally accountable for what happened in Flint.”

“Governor Snyder has taken every excuse that has been presented to him,” Scott said. “This just gives him another layer of excuse to use.”

This is the second lawsuit Schuette’s office has brought related to the Flint water crisis. The first charged two state officials with the MDEQ and one city official with a total of 13 felony charges and five misdemeanor charges. Snyder himself is being named in other lawsuits brought by Flint residents. The EPA and the Department of Justice are also conducting their own investigations.