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Federal judge: Deliver bottled water to Flint residents

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

A federal judge ruled Thursday the state of Michigan and Flint have to provide home-delivered bottled water to residents if they can’t prove faucet filters are working to remove harmful lead from the drinking water.

U.S. District Judge David Lawson ordered home delivery of four cases of water per resident each week unless state and city officials can verify each resident has a properly installed and maintained faucet water filter.

“The defendants need not deliver water to homes that have properly installed and maintained faucet water filters, as long as the defendants can monitor and verify the effectiveness of the filters,” Lawson wrote in a 37-page opinion.

Lawson’s preliminary injunction was sought by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and Flint residents who sued state and city officials to try to speed up the slow process of removing lead service lines blamed for contaminating the city’s water.

“It is an important, but rare, victory for the people of Flint, who have suffered one set back after the next since poison started flowing out their faucets more than two years ago,” ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg said in a statement.

State and city officials argued against door-to-door water service, contending the costly and time-consuming weekly distribution would delay efforts to remove and replace lead and galvanized metal pipes that are leaching toxic metal into the drinking water supply.

The judge disagreed.

“It is in the best interest of everyone to move people out of harms way before addressing the source of the harm,” he said.

The Michigan State Police’s emergency operations division estimated it would cost $9.4 million for weekly delivery of bottled water to the 30,000 to 34,000 occupied homes in Flint.

Capt. Chris Kelenske testified in court the water alone would cost another $11.4 million per month to provide each home with an average of 10 cases of bottled water each week.

The state already has nine “water resource” sites set up throughout the city where residents can pick up cases of bottled water every day but Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Anna Heaton, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder, said the state’s attorneys are reviewing the judge’s ruling.

“In the meantime, the state will continue providing free water resources for all Flint residents, including filters and bottled water delivery for those who request it, just as we have been,” Heaton said in an email Thursday.

The judge ordered state and city officials to file a report by Dec. 16 detailing how they are complying with his order.

Flint residents who sued for home delivery of bottled water testified at a court hearing September that picking up the water on a nearly daily basis is a burden on their daily lives. Residents have been instructed by federal and state officials to only drink filtered or bottled water.

Lawson ruled the water resource sites were insufficient for the daily needs of Flint residents while the water remains unsafe to drink without lead filters.

“The fact that such items are available does not mean that they are reliably accessible or effective in furnishing safe drinking water to every household,” Lawson wrote. “Indeed, the endeavor of hunting for water has become a dominant activity in some Flint residents’ daily lives.”

Lawson, who ruled in July the lawsuit could proceed, also agreed with the plaintiffs that the state’s distribution of faucet filters is an ineffective method of ensuring the water is lead free.

The plaintiffs argued the filters can be improperly installed, wear out within a few months and can be damaged when hot water is run through them.

State officials have distributed more than 141,000 water filters to Flint homes since January and another 308,000 replacement filter cartridges, according to a Nov. 2 report from Gov. Rick Snyder’s office.

In his ruling, the judge opined that a safe and reliable water supply “has always been critical to civilization.” The ruling went through a brief history of the development of clean, running water.

The judge put blame for Flint’s water pipes leach lead directly on the shoulders of Flint while under control by a state-appointed emergency manager.

“It appears beyond dispute that the city of Flint failed to meet its responsibilities under the corrosion control regulations of the Lead and Copper Rule,” the judge wrote.

The judge also ruled it “appears that Flint is continuing to violate” rules for monitoring lead levels in Flint’s drinking water system based water sampling protocols not being followed.

“The defendants have not offered contrary evidence,” the judge ruled.

clivengood@detroitnews.com