Federal judge clears way for Flint-Detroit water deal

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

A federal judge has paved the way for Flint officials to move forward with a long-term water contract supported by Mayor Karen Weaver to keep the city from bankruptcy but initially opposed by the City Council.

“There is no basis to conclude that the need for immediate action has diminished,” Detroit U.S. District Judge David Lawson wrote in a ruling released Friday. “In fact, as time slips away, Flint’s opportunities for an economical long-term water supply contract are running out.”

In April, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, Gov. Rick Snyder and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency supported a proposed 30-year deal with the Great Lakes Water Authority, but the Flint City Council dragged its feet and balked. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality sued Flint in June, arguing the council’s refusal to approve an agreement with the Great Lakes authority was endangering public health in the wake of a lead-contamination crisis that has largely been blamed on the state.

The council told Lawson in a Sunday emergency motion that if the court didn’t dismiss or revisit the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s lawsuit against Flint, the city would be “forced under duress to decide on a long-term contract” before it had an expert analysis. The council had requested 75 days for its expert to do water testing before it made a water source decision.

But Lawson said the council’s delay already endangered the 30-year deal with the Detroit area water system. He dismissed the rest of their legal arguments.

“The City of Flint’s brief includes press accounts of City Council members decrying the Court’s intervention, complaining about the ‘gun [held] to [their] head,’ ‘forced into signing a contract,’ ” Lawson wrote. “The Court’s judgment, however, ordered the City of Flint to do what its citizens elected their representatives to do: govern by acting in the interest of the common good. That has not happened over the past year, and now time — which is of the essence — is in short supply. ...

“In all events, the City Council has not offered any good reasons for reconsidering, altering, amending, withdrawing, or staying this Court’s judgment. The parties may move to enforce it as they see fit.”

A council meeting is being held Friday trying to extend the deal another month, Weaver told The Detroit News. But there may be limits to how many extensions the city could get, she said.

Weaver had not yet read the ruling when reached by The Detroit News, but said the judge’s observation about parts of the Great Lakes deal being off the table were valid.

“That’s what we’ve been warning about for months,” the mayor said.

All parties agreed to an Oct. 16 deadline for signing off on the Great Lakes water deal, Weaver said, and the deadline has passed.

In his original ruling, Lawson took the City Council to task for failing to move on the proposed Detroit regional water agreement and ordered council members to make a decision by Oct. 23.

The city was originally going to connect to the new Karegnondi Water Authority, but state experts said it would take up to three years and about $58 million in repairs and upgrades before the city’s water treatment plant can safely connect to the new system. EPA Region 5 acting administrator Robert Kaplan said the costs would likely be much higher, calling the Flint facility built in 1952 “a museum of water treatment.”

Flint officials said Tuesday if the City Council failed to approve a long-term water source quickly, the city could be forced into bankruptcy.

The mayor told The Detroit News previously that the financial strain on the city’s coffers “is one of the things we’ve been trying to stress” to the City Council but the appeals have failed.

The city, the mayor said, has been spending $444,000 on monthly bond payments to the Karegnondi Water Authority since July for a total of $1.7 million. Under the Great Lakes deal, the authority would issues credits to Flint to offset the Karegnondi water deal costs.

Some council members argued that the issue needed more study and that they have felt “bullied” to approve the Detroit water agreement.

But the mayor said a council representative was present during the planning process that shaped the proposed deal. Council President Kerry Nelson said he disagreed with Weaver’s assessment.

“This is what they’re forgetting: We have to listen to the people that elected us. The people that elected us say we don’t want a 30-year deal with Detroit (Great Lakes Water Authority),” Nelson said. “In that, why not give us an independent study? If the study says that Detroit is the safe, affordable way to go, then certainly we would not deny that.”