Closing in on 4 years, the Flint water crisis has captured attention even outside of the United States. A significant public effort has been made to deliver clean bottled water to the city. Affected Flint citizens have been demanding accountability, launching multiple lawsuits.
The state of Michigan has tried to block these lawsuits, citing a statute of limitations. But in late January 2018, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled against the state, allowing a lawsuit to proceed. It is expected that the state will continue to seek ways to block this and many other lawsuits. For now, this ruling is seen as a significant blow in favor of Flint’s residents.
In the interest of saving money, Michigan officials unleashed disaster.
The water crisis started in April 2014 when the city switched its source of water. The new source was the Flint River, which for decades had been polluted by local industry. The alleged intent was to find more cost-effective ways to guarantee the city of Flint had drinking water. In 2011, Michigan had declared a state of financial emergency, which prompted a wide range of cost-cutting measures.
A study from 2011 warned against using the river as drinking water, stating the need for an anti-corrosive treatment. However, this study was ignored, and the state did not conduct an independent scientific assessment of the river. Essentially, Flint officials and the state of Michigan moved forward with the planned switch willfully ignorant of the risks. Even in the months leading up to the change, officials were warned that the Flint water treatment plant was not ready to deal with the switch.
Flint’s water supply was poisoned by elevated levels of lead. Iron was also found in the water, 19 times more than what was found in the original Lake Huron water source. Because water management officials neglected to use anti-corrosion treatments of the water, pipes were corroding. The water was coming through faucets and shower heads discolored, with a foul smell that prompted multiple complaints.
Also in the water were multiple forms of dangerous bacteria. Coliform and E-coli bacteria were detected. The city made an effort to control these bacteria, but the chemicals used would later be detected within the drinking water at unsafe levels.
Additionally, the Flint River is suspected as being the source of a Legionnaires Disease outbreak that killed at least 12 people, and hospitalized many others.
Inevitably, lawsuits would be filed against Flint and the State of Michigan, and these would be contested in court.
Michigan argued that residents were too late in filing a lawsuit on the Flint water crisis.
Other water crisis lawsuits have been dismissed on legal technicalities in the past.
In the recently approved lawsuit, the state argued that residents were late in filing their claims with the Court of Claims. The statute of limitations meant that Flint residents had to file a claim within six months of two specific dates. June 2013 was when the state ordered the use of the Flint River. April 25th, 2014 was when the switch officially took place. Because the defendants filed in January 2016, this would have been well outside of the statute of limitations. Additionally, governmental agencies in Michigan are typically immune to tort liability when engaged in government functions.
The citizens filing the claim argued that the state was ultimately responsible for the switch to the Flint River. The failure to properly treat the water was ultimately another responsibility of the state. Citizens were paying their water bills under the expectation that the water would be safe to drink and use.
Race has also played a significant role in the Flint water crisis. The lawsuit claims that predominantly African-American areas in Flint were subjected to water from the Flint River. Other neighborhoods remained on the original Lake Huron supply. Beyond this claim, the plaintiffs and a chorus of critics have claimed that such a crisis would never happen in a predominantly white affluent neighborhood.
Court ruling now places the state budget in the crosshairs for victims seeking compensation.
The Michigan Court of Appeals did not agree with the state’s arguments. In a statement, the CoA said it would be impossible for Flint residents to know exactly when to file a lawsuit in respect to the statute of limitations.
State officials and appointed emergency managers had engaged in a months-long campaign to assure residents the water was safe to use. The disinformation campaign continued even as evidence was pointing to a fundamental problem with the Flint River water.
The Michigan CoA went on to say that the lawsuit was indeed filed within six months of the state acknowledging the Flint water crisis.
The ruling will likely be hotly contested by state attorneys, and ultimately the Michigan Supreme Court could hear the case. Should this ruling be reversed, Governor Snyder and the other implicated officials are not out of the woods. An ongoing federal lawsuit has targeted the state, the engineering firms that oversaw the switch in the water, and Flint’s local emergency managers.
The Flint River stopped being the city’s water source in 2015, but the crisis continues.
On October 16th, 2015, Flint switched back to Detroit water. However, the damage to Flint’s water infrastructure has prompted an effort to replace the city’s pipes. Even with cleaner water flowing through the old system, the Flint River’s improperly treated water was breaking down accumulated lead and iron into the water. Drinking water from these pipes could still result in elevated lead levels in a person’s bloodstream. Efforts to repair and replace portions of Flint’s water infrastructure could extend beyond 2020.
Children are among the most vulnerable to lead exposure. Lowered IQ, limited attention spans, and behavioral problems that extend into their adult years are major risks. In 2017, the third-grade reading proficiency in Flint dropped to an alarming 10.7%. Brian Whiston, the Michigan Superintendent of Education, believes that this drop could be partially explained by the lead in the water, and also by the stress of the crisis.
Investigations on who is responsible for the Flint water crisis will likely continue for years. The various lawsuits could also potentially stretch on for just as long. The State of Michigan has shown a willingness to contest the right of residents to file damage claims.
This recent ruling, while not in the State of Michigan’s favor, is only one round in a longer legal battle that has spread beyond Flint. There is a growing and poorly documented problem with drinking water in poorer parts of the United States. Rural areas all over the country, including California’s Central Valley, are dealing a wide range of water deficiencies. Bacterial contamination, industrial or agricultural chemical byproducts, and drought-caused water shortages threaten the health of millions of Americans. The Flint water crisis has become a lightning rod for public attention regarding water quality, and will likely fuel similar legal actions for years to come.