Michigan fights court order to give Flint residents bottled water

The state is balking at the cost of handing out water to residents who still can’t drink from their taps.

Volunteers hand out bottled water in Flint. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
Volunteers hand out bottled water in Flint. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Last week, a federal judge ordered the state of Michigan and the city of Flint to begin delivering bottled water to all residents’ homes to ensure that everyone has access to safe drinking water. Now the state is fighting back.

Flint residents still can’t drink water straight from their taps after officials switched water sources two years ago and failed to use corrosion control chemicals that would have kept lead from leeching into the water. While officials have urged residents to use filters, those are expensive, difficult to install, and need replacing. And at the peak of the lead poisoning crisis, levels were so high that filters weren’t able to remove all of the toxic chemicals.

In light of this ongoing health crisis, Flint residents, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the ACLU of Michigan filed a motion in March asking a federal court to require the delivery of bottled water to people’s homes — particularly as many residents face challenges in picking up free water from the designated distribution centers.

Judge David M. Lawson ruled in their favor on November 10, finding that the government must deliver bottled water to all homes unless it can verify — and continue to ensure — that a home has adequately installed a faucet filter or the residents decline the delivery. He specified that officials had to ensure the delivery of four cases of water per resident each week. This, he wrote, “is intended to provide a rough substitute for the essential service that municipal water systems must furnish: delivery of safe drinking water at the point of use.”


But on Thursday, Michigan officials filed a motion to block the court order, asking for a stay until the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals hears its appeal.

The state argues that the delivery of bottled water is unnecessary and also difficult to carry out, pointing to the cost and logistics required. It estimates that water delivery would cost about $10.5 million a month and require much more warehouse capacity, as well as more trucks and drivers. “It is in the public’s interest to spare taxpayers this great expense while the injunction is appealed,” lawyers wrote in the filing.

The original decisions to switch to the Flint River and not to use corrosion control chemicals, all of which led to the crisis in the first place, were reportedly made to save money. But now, of course, it’s going to cost far more thanks to water delivery, replacing the city’s pipes, and dealing with the public health and educational consequences.

Residents are currently shouldering the burden of much of these costs. In their original filing, the residents and organizations relayed some of the difficulties people in Flint have had getting safe water.


While there are five distribution centers that give out free water, residents are limited to one case per household, lines can stretch for hours, and some residents don’t have the strength to haul water cases. Plus, many people in the city lack adequate transportation to get to the distribution centers in the first place, as 19 percent of residents don’t have access to a car. There are free buses, but the plaintiffs alleged that they run infrequently and don’t have convenient enough routes to help many people.

So many people are taking drastic steps to supplement that supply of water. Some, the complaint states, are rationing their supplies by cutting back on usage and/or allowing those who have health issues to drink more of it. Others spend hundreds of dollars a month buying bottled water, “resulting in a serious financial burden,” the complaint states. That comes on top of the water bills they still have to pay, which before the crisis were the highest in the country.

“The challenge of obtaining enough safe water to drink and cook with each day is adding worry, frustration, and financial burden to the lives of many members of the Flint community,” the complaint says. “The result is that many Flint residents still lack access to safe water.”