Suit: Safe Drinking Water Act violated in Flint

Jennifer Chambers and Jacob Carah
The Detroit News
Virginia Tech Ph.D. research assistant Christina Devine studies water samples with copper pipes from Flint and Detroit, testing for lead.

Flint — Arguing the water in Flint is still not safe to drink because state and city officials are violating the Safe Drinking Water Act, a coalition of religious, environmental and civil rights activists is asking a federal judge for help.

The group, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the ACLU of Michigan, Concerned Pastors for Social Action and Flint resident Melissa Mays, filed a lawsuit early Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Detroit alleging government officials continue to violate the federal law that protects drinking water amid Flint’s widespread lead-contamination crisis.

The 59-page lawsuit says the harm suffered by Flint residents will not be addressed until city and state officials properly treat Flint’s water to control lead, properly test the water for lead contamination, promptly notify residents of testing results, and report their activities to state regulators, all as required by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“The damage done to the city’s pipes from the Flint River water means that lead will continue to contaminate the city’s drinking water. This contamination poses an ongoing health risk to city residents, especially young children who are most vulnerable to the effects of lead,” the lawsuit.

The suit names as defendants state Treasurer Nick A. Khouri, the five-member Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board, Flint city administrator Natasha Henderson and the city of Flint.

According to the complaint, Khouri oversees and manages the city’s operations while it remains under state control, the advisory board must approve city contracts and budget amendments including those related to operations of the water system and Henderson and the city are operators of the water system under federal law.

“We have received and are reviewing the lawsuit, but we do not comment on current litigation,” Treasury spokesman Terry Stanton said Wednesday. “That said, the state's top priority is making sure the people of Flint immediately have access to safe, clean water, and that includes reaching every home to supply water, filters, replacement filter cartridges and water testing kits. The administration is also working with independent experts on testing of the water and will continue to work with them going forward.”

The lawsuit also is asking the court to order state officials to completely replace all lead service lines in the water system at no cost to customers, including privately owned lines.

“The water in Flint is still not safe to drink because city and state officials are violating the federal law that protects drinking water,” said Dimple Chaudhary, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “In doing so, they are exposing the people of Flint to lead, a powerful toxin that can be devastating to young children. We are asking a federal court to step in because the people of Flint simply cannot rely on the same government agencies that oversaw the destruction of its infrastructure and contamination of its water to address this crisis.”

The suit says members of Concerned Pastors for Social Action and Flint residents want to use unfiltered tap water they purchase from the water system rather than having to spend additional money and the inconvenience of using bottles water or installing filters.

“These filters can, if not used, changed and maintained regularly and properly, stop working or even make lead problems worse,” the complaint says.

The group, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, discussed the lawsuit at a press conference Wednesday morning at a Flint church.

“Justice looks like those who engaged in criminal negligence will face the law for those who made the decision to cover it up. On the other hand, justice for the people will require a substantial investment in not just bottles of water but for the water pipes,” Jackson said. “This is an epicenter of urban crisis, that reflects a candor of right wing reaction to the civil rights struggle of the last 50 years.”

Bishop Neal Roberson, senior pastor of the Church of the Harvest in Flint, added the endgame for justice is for arrests to be made.

“It has been said, Flint, Michigan, is a crime scene and that someone needs to go to jail for what has happened here,” Roberson said. “There are sick children; there are families hurting.”

This latest lawsuit follows at least three others, which have been filed by Flint residents as part of the water crisis in recent days and months.

They include: a federal civil suit filed against Gov. Rick Snyder and others seeking class action status and money damages for the crisis; a lawsuit against Flint and others filed in Genesee County to stop water shutoffs for nonpayment, also seeking class action status; and a lawsuit filed in the Michigan Court of Claims against Snyder and the state departments of environmental quality and health and human services that seeks to hold the state of Michigan financially accountable for the disaster.

On Thursday, the nation’s top environmental official cited her agency’s authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act and ordered Michigan to take “immediate action to address serious and ongoing concerns” with Flint’s drinking water system.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy issued an emergency order that requires “necessary information” be provided to the public in a clear and transparent way to assure that “accurate, reliable and trustworthy information” is available to inform the public and decisions about next steps.

The order includes:

■Full implementation of EPA task force recommendations on sampling, with prompt and regular reporting to the federal agency and the public.

■Ensuring Flint has all of the professional assistance necessary to operate its water system safely.

■Soliciting, through a transparent public process, the input of “nationally recognized experts” on safe water treatment, sampling and distribution.

■Ensuring the city has the “technical, managerial and financial capacity” to safely transition from its current water source, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, to the newly formed Karegnondi Water Authority some time later this year.

Flint’s water crisis stems from the city’s switch to Flint River water in April 2014 while under control of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager. In October, after health officials confirmed elevated levels of lead in the bloodstreams of Flint children, the city switched back to Detroit’s Lake Huron water system.

Lead can cause irreversible brain and developmental damage in children and infants who ingest it through water or lead-based paint. Health officials said its impacts can take years to manifest and require heightened monitoring to identify.