Residents of Michigan’s second-largest city recently filed three class action lawsuits against the city, state and federal government. The lawsuits center on Flint’s contaminated water supply. Our team of lead poisoning attorneys detail this water crisis and similar water contamination lawsuits we have handled.
Flint has struggled immensely in recent years, accruing millions of dollars in debt. From 2011 to 2015, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed a series of four Emergency Managers to aid in the city’s financial crisis. Emergency Managers are given unusually broad powers, and as part of the restructuring, in 2014 managers approved switching the public’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, in an effort to save costs.
Residents and Doctors Ignored
For the last 50 years, Flint has relied solely on Detroit to route treated water from Lake Huron for its public water supply. When a new pipeline, from Lake Huron to the Flint area, began construction, Flint officials decided to save money by sourcing its water exclusively from the Flint River until the pipeline’s completion in 2016.
The Flint River is notoriously polluted, known throughout the city as a dumping ground for old appliances. Immediately after the switch, residents started complaining about their tap water’s look, smell and taste. The water was so rancid and foamy that a pastor stopped using it for baptisms; Flint’s General Motors plant refused to use it because it was rusting auto parts; and
a local hospital noticed the water was damaging medical instruments.
Their complaints were ignored for more than 18 months, even after a Flint doctor found elevated blood lead levels in children. The pediatrician aired his concerns to city and state officials, which dismissed his findings as “data,” in quotes.
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Still, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality insisted the water was safe. As revealed in emails recently made public, state officials were irritated by residents’ repeated complaints, refused to acknowledge the problem, and were eager to place responsibility with local government.
Corrosive Water Left Untreated
River water is much more corrosive than lake water. Researchers from Virginia Tech soon found that the new water going into Flint was highly corrosive, damaging the city’s lead-based pipes. As the water corroded the piping systems, lead seeped into the city’s public water supply, contaminated the water throughout the county.
According to the class action lawsuit, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality failed to treat the new water for corrosion, which is required by federal law. The city switched back to Lake Huron’s water in October 2015, but the damage was already done. The Mayor of Flint, the Governor of Michigan, and President Obama have all declared states of emergency, and the National Guard was called in to help deliver clean water to the city’s 100,000 residents.
Michigan recently approved $28 million to provide bottled water, healthcare for children, temporary housing and home repairs, and infrastructure fixes. The State Attorney General is also taking action, investigating whether or not laws were broken as the crisis unfolded.
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Much of the blame has fallen on Governor Snyder, who has acknowledged that the Flint crisis equates to his own Hurricane Katrina. Flint’s residents are poverty-stricken and majority black, begging the question: would a similar situation have taken place in a white-majority, affluent Michigan city? Flint represents a vulnerable pocket of America, where residents are at the mercy of neglectful governance. and accountability is nil.
Toxic Exposure in Vulnerable Populations
There are numerous examples of vulnerable populations severely harmed by insidious governance and ideology. In 2014, chemicals leaked into a river in West Virginia, one of the country’s most impoverished states. It is among the nation’s most serious incidents of chemical contamination, and was the result of state officials’ diminishing environmental regulation and enforcement.
Residents of Crestwood, Illinois, had their public water supply polluted for more than 20 years before any cleanup was attempted or even acknowledged. We represented many residents of Crestwood in their vinyl chloride contamination lawsuits, which ultimately resulted in a $15 million settlement last year. More on that case here.
It is still unclear when Flint’s water will be safe for consumption. In the meantime, residents are left with a deep mistrust of government and feelings of injustice and neglect. Lead poisoning is most harmful for children under six, and even minor levels of exposure are linked to long-term health and developmental issues. Signs and symptoms usually do not appear until dangerous amounts of lead have accumulated.
Higher levels can cause damage to kidneys and the nervous system, and very high levels can cause seizures, unconsciousness, and death. Our lead poisoning lawyers have represented many people harmed by exposure to lead and other toxins.