A Flint resident, together with several local and national groups, filed suit in a Michigan district court Wednesday against the City of Flint, among other defendants, for violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The lawsuit seeks a federal court order that would force city and state officials to comply with federal regulations governing the treatment and testing of lead-contaminated water. Plaintiffs, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), are further calling for the replacement of all lead pipes at zero cost to Flint’s residents. The cost of overhauling the city’s water infrastructure could surpass $1 billion, according to some estimates.
According to Dimple Chaudhary, a senior attorney with the two million-member NRDC, the Safe Drinking Water Act empowers citizens to sue government representatives who fail to properly test water for traces of contaminants, treat contaminated water, promptly notify residents of their findings, and report on their activities to the appropriate state regulators. As numerous reports have now made clear, Flint authorities failed on every count to safeguard the city’s 100,000 residents from the devastating impacts of toxins in the drinking water supply.
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Plaintiffs allege that Flint residents cannot be expected to rely upon the very same authorities that created the crisis—and then ignored, covered up, or dismissed concerns about it—to fix the problem. Which is why, they say, a federal court must step in.
The lawsuit is not seeking monetary damages.
Speaking on a press call Wednesday morning, Flint resident Rev. Allen Overton, a member of Concerned Pastors for Social Action, which is also named as a plaintiff in the suit, said he was born and raised in Flint, a majority-Black city that has “had more than its fair share of hard times.” Flint has a 41 percent poverty rate and a quarter of its working-age residents are unemployed, according to the lawsuit.
“But even a struggling cash-strapped city must abide by the laws that ensure the basic rights of American citizens including the right to safe water,” Rev. Overton stated, referring to the fact that Flint switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014 in a bid to save $5 million in about two years. Soon after the switch, residents began complaining that their water was turning “brown, red, yellow and green,” and that they and their kids were losing hair and breaking out in rashes. Still, for over 18 months their protestations fell on deaf ears.
“Six months ago there were no cameras and a small group of concerned citizens, plus one ACLU reporter, sat in a church basement with 300 test kits from Virginia Tech,” Melissa Mays, also a plaintiff in the suit, and co-founder of the Flint grassroots group Water You Fighting For, said on Wednesday’s press call. She was referring to the team of volunteers that arrived last year in Flint to conduct independent testing of the city’s lead-to-water ratios. By the summer of 2015, some households had ratios of 13,000 parts per billion (ppb). According to the Environmental Protection Agency, lead concentration levels of over 15 ppb in household water sources require corrosion control action, while 5,000 ppb is considered hazardous waste.
Mays, a Flint resident and a mother of three boys, said it was the “consistent efforts, dedication, and sacrifice” of local families and activists that enabled the lawsuit and the current wave of national media interest in Flint.
“What happened to my family, the pain that my kids will suffer for the rest of their lives, the poison that we are still being forced to pay the highest rates in the nation for—all because of the failure of [city and state officials] to monitor and notify us that the water was unsafe—is horrifying,” she said. “What has happened to us should never happen to anyone again.”