More than 1,700 Flint-area residents and property owners have filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the “mishandling” of the city’s water crisis in a legal action seeking more than $722.4 million in damages.
The federal agency failed to respond to an administrative claim filed last year, clearing the way for Monday’s filing in U.S. District Court. In the 30-page complaint, the plaintiffs argue the EPA “failed to follow several specific agency mandates and directives governing its conduct” over Flint’s municipal water system that became tainted with lead after corrosive river water flowed through its pipes.
Among those alleged failings, the EPA:
■Failed to immediately determine if local and state officials were taking the proper steps to address water contamination issues.
■Failed to give “advice and technical assistance” to government entities that were not in legal compliance with the the Safe Water Drinking Act and compel remedies if they were not achieved within 30 days.
“Despite notice of the danger a early as October 2014, the EPA failed to take the mandatory steps to determine that Michigan and Flint authorities were not taking appropriate action to protect the public from toxic water and failed to file the emergency ... action until January 2016,” the complaint reads.
Michael Pitt, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the $722.4 million claim is a cumulative figure representing total damages claimed for various property and health issues.
“We have people — they all have some type of injury — whether it’s a personal injury or a property damage claim, from lead poisoning to having their lives disrupted,” he said.
Jan Burgess, a former Flint resident, was responsible for first notifying the EPA of the growing water problems in October 2014. Six months earlier, the city had begun drawing its water from the Flint River after terminating its decades-long relationship with Detroit’s water system.
A failure to properly treat that river water with corrosion-controlling chemicals is believed to have led to lead contamination, as well as increases in cases of pneumonia and Legionnaires’ disease. Immediately after the switch, Flint residents noticed changes in the look, taste and smell of the water.
Burgess, who is named a plaintiff in the lawsuit, was among those who made repeated calls to Flint and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials seeking help. When she failed to reach anyone, she found herself filling out a complaint form on the EPA’s website where she described both the problems with the water and her concerns for its impacts.
She eventually received a response, but the 64-year-old said she had little luck comprehending it.
“I thought I’d get something more than that ...,” said Burgess on Monday. “Truthfully, I’m not stupid, but I didn’t understand what they were saying to me at all.”
Emails released under Freedom of Information Act requests have detailed the communications between Michigan officials and the EPA in 2014 and 2015. And both sides have accused the other of improperly handling their responsibilities.
The EPA officially moved to compel action on Jan. 21, 2016, with an administrative order sent to Gov. Rick Snyder.
On Monday, EPA Region 5 spokeswoman Anne Rowan said the agency declined to comment on the pending litigation.
A year ago, former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy vigorously defended her agency before a U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing.
The crux of her March 17 defense was that the EPA was kept in the dark about details of the water crisis through poor communication from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality.
“Looking back on Flint, from Day One, the state provided our regional office with confusing, incomplete and incorrect information,” McCarthy said. “Their interactions with us were intransigent, misleading and contentious.”
She later added: “Up until today, they continue to drag their feet.”
In February, Keith Creagh, then director of the state’s DEQ, was critical of the federal agency, saying: “My observation is that the EPA did not display the sense of urgency that the situation demanded.”
Burgess and her husband live in Owosso. Burgess suffers from health issues she said have been exacerbated by the city’s water.
She watched McCarthy’s testimony before Congress last year and remembers finding it a challenge to keep her temper. Today, she’s still angry.
“We’re not likely to be able to sell our house, and we’re of that generation where we can’t just bring ourselves to simply walk away from it,” she said. “That just doesn’t feel right — we always paid our bills.”
As for the EPA: “Dammit, I want them to accept some responsibility.”