Flint — Attorney General Bill Schuette on Wednesday sued a pair of engineering firms for allegedly allowing the Flint water contamination crisis to “occur, continue and worsen,” a claim the companies denied and vowed to fight.
Schuette filed the civil lawsuit in Genesee County Circuit Court against Veolia North America and Lockwood Andrews & Newnam (LAN). The suit also names LAN’s Nebraska-based parent company, Leo A. Daly Co.
The engineering firms, hired to assist the city before and after it began using Flint River water in April 2014, “basically botched it,” Schuette said at a press conference at the University of Michigan-Flint.“They didn’t stop the water in Flint from being poisoned, they made it worse.”
The attorney general told reporters the state may seek to recover “hundreds of millions” in damages from the companies, money he said could be used to provide services, education and health care infrastructure in Flint.
The city had hired LAN in June 2013 to prepare its treatment plant for full-time operation using Flint River water. Then-Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz authorized the sole-source contract with the Texas-based company.
The suit, which also accuses LAN of a public nuisance, claims the company’s “failure to design and implement corrosion control breaches the duty of a professional engineering firm in this field” and violated the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Flint hired Veolia North America, which is listed as a Delaware corporation, in early 2015 to study the city’s water system after the switch led to a series of boil water advisories and drinking water violations due to high levels of total trihalomethanes.
The consulting company concluded that the city remained in compliance with state and federal regulations but recommended a series of steps to address water quality and aesthetics, including the addition of corrosion control chemicals.
Veolia’s March 2015 report made no reference to potential lead contamination but said that adding a polyphosphate chemical could help remedy discoloration caused by “what primarily appears to be iron from the old unlined cast iron pipes.”
Schuette’s lawsuit claims Veolia committed a public nuisance and fraud for saying Flint’s water was “safe” and in compliance with drinking water standards.
“Veolia knew the representations were false, or Veolia’s representations were made recklessly without any knowledge of the potential truth,” according to the complaint.
While Veolia was hired because of separate water quality concerns, Special Assistant Attorney General Noah Hall said the firm should have known about the developing lead issue when it promised to take a comprehensive look at the city’s water system.
Hall said the same day Veolia was in Flint giving a “Power Point dog and pony show” on its preliminary report, the city tested the water of resident Lee-Anne Walters. The tests came back two days later, showing dangerously high lead levels at her home.
“There’s no way that Veolia can rewrite history and say they didn’t know and had no reason to know about lead in people’s homes,” said Hall, an environmental and water law expert from Wayne State University.
On Wednesday, Veolia issued a statement challenging the charges, saying investigators never spoke with Veolia’s technical experts.
“The company is disappointed that the attorney general has taken this action and will vigorously defend itself against these unwarranted allegations of wrongdoing,” the statement reads. “ ... Veolia’s engagement with the city was wholly unrelated to the current lead issues. 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.”
A task force assembled by Gov. Rick Snyder to study the Flint water crisis was unable to schedule an interview with anyone from LAN despite several requests, according to its final report issued in March 2016.
LAN also issued its own statement Wednesday, saying Schuette’s office had “blatantly mischaracterized” the consulting firm’s work in Flint.
“The attorney general specifically referred to a decision not to provide appropriate corrosion control, which resulted in a significant decline in water quality, a decision that was made by the city and the MDEQ, not by LAN,” the company’s rebuttal read. “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 Flint Water Advisory Task Force found that this tragedy was ‘a story of government failure’ at all levels. 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.”
Veolia was not prominently mentioned in the task force report that placed primary blame for the Flint water crisis at the feet of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which failed to require the city to use corrosion control chemicals.
The attorney general launched a Flint investigation in January, bringing on Royal Oak attorney Todd Flood as a special prosecutor and former Detroit FBI head Andrew Arena as special agent in charge of the probe. In April, Schuette charged two state water regulators and a city official with a series of misdemeanor and felony crimes.
Schuette said the civil lawsuit complements the criminal charges and is part of a larger effort to restore trust and confidence in government.
“Our criminal investigation is ongoing, and as I stated and as I guaranteed, there are more charges to come, so stay tuned,” he said.
State environmental department employees Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby were previously charged with misconduct, tampering with water monitoring reports and violating state drinking water laws.
Flint utilities administrator Mike Glasgow struck a plea deal with Schuette’s office. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of willful neglect of duty after agreeing to cooperate with state and federal investigators.
67th District Court Judge Jennifer Manley took Glasgow’s plea under advisement in May and delayed her decision on whether to accept it.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver on Wednesday applauded Schuette's strategy to file civil litigation in an effort to help the city and was critical of the work done by the companies in question, including LAN, which she said still has a contract with the city.
"It is disturbing to hear that companies hired to ensure the safety of the city's water supply might not have done what they were paid to do," Weaver said.
Flint switched back to Detroit’s pre-treated Lake Huron water supply in October and plans to treat and use water from a new regional pipeline whenever construction is completed.