Flint residents seek $220M in damages from EPA
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is now the latest governmental entity targeted for damages in a class action lawsuit stemming from the Flint water crisis.
On Monday, attorneys for more than 500 current and former city residents filed claims for personal injury and property damage. Those claims, which fall under the Federal Tort Claims Act, total more than $220 million in potential damages.
In a statement released with the lawsuit Monday, plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Pitt wrote: “The EPA heard the alarm bell loud and clear but chose to ignore the profound environmental and public health issues brought to its attention in the early stages of this disaster. This agency attitude of ‘public be damned’ amounts to a cruel and unspeakable act of environmental injustice for which damages will have to be paid to the thousands of injured water users.”
Pitt said a second filing representing another group of roughly 250 residents will be filed in the coming weeks.
The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit is former Flint resident Jan Burgess, who first contact the EPA via the agency’s website in October 2014. While living in the city, she noticed the smell and taste issues that began as soon as Flint began drawing its drinking water from the river in April 2014.
City and state officials failed to treat the river water with proper corrosion controls to prevent lead contamination between April 2014 and October 2015. The system, which still produces water samples with high lead concentrations, has been slow to recover after being switched to the Great Lakes Water Authority six months ago.
Filling out an electronic form for reporting violations of environmental law and regulations, Burgess wrote: “The water is not safe to drink, cook or wash dishes with, or even give to pets. We worry every time we shower. The City of Flint is still very economically depressed and most citizens cannot afford to do anything other than use the river water.”
Within in a week, Burgess received and email response confirming that state officials were investigating the problem. It was not until 18 months later that EPA officials would meet with Burgess about her concerns.
That apparent lack of urgency has been noted by attorneys representing Burgess and others in the case against the EPA. In February 2015, EPA officials had become aware of problems — extremely high lead readings — at the home of Flint resident Lee-Anne Walters.
In legal filings Monday, attorneys singled out EPA official Jennifer Crooks, who oversees water issues in Michigan.
“Crooks... was aware that the Flint River was highly corrosive and that Flint had older, corroded lead service pipes which required corrosion control treatments,” the lawsuit reads. “She knew in February 2015, that (EPA water expert Miguel Del Toral) had observed lead-based ‘black sediment’ in the Waters’ water and that Jan Burgess reported in October 2014 (of) floating particles in her water.”
Plaintiffs attorneys call out the EPA as a whole for failing to act month after month as the pieces of the Flint water crisis puzzle fell into place.
“By April 2015, the EPA was positive that corrosion control was not being used, yet failed to suggest, direct or counsel the (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) and Flint to implement a corrosion control program until July 2015,” the complaint reads.
EPA officials could not be reached for comment Monday evening. But in recent months, as criticism of all government agencies involved in Flint’s water crisis has ratcheted up, federal officials have defended their actions.
In March, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said her agency was partially obstructed in fulfilling its oversight role by Michigan officials. Testifying before a congressional committee, she said her agency was misled by Michigan environmental officials for months, leaving her agency with “insufficient” information to indicate a systemic lead problem in Flint until last summer.
“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.”