News Human Rights

Coalition Sues City and State Officials Over Flint Water Crisis

Kanya D’Almeida

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.

Read more of our articles on Flint’s water emergency here.

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 crisisand 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.”

Commentary Politics

Young and Far From Apathetic on Abortion

Lauren Rankin & Dr. Sarp Aksel

It’s easy to say that millennials aren’t actively defending abortion rights. But it’s not true. In fact, the wide range of young people’s actions to preserve and advance access defies narrow definitions of "political activism."

This election season has brought mixed messages about youth activism. As Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have attempted to woo young voters, there’s also been pointed criticism that millennials’ supposed apathy has contributed to the erosion of, of all things, abortion rights.

The most notable example of such criticism was Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s January comments that she saw “a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided.”

Schultz’s perception does not mirror our reality (nor the reality of a presidential campaign in which few candidates have given abortion rights any meaningful airtime).

We are the younger generation in question. Together, we are a 28-year-old abortion provider and a 30-year-old abortion clinic escort. Every day, we enable access to abortion care, and we aren’t the only ones. Our friends and colleagues work tirelessly to not only further the abortion rights movement, but to lead it.

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According to a 2015 Gallup poll, a greater proportion of people ages 18 to 34 identify as pro-choice than does any other age group. But what the statistics don’t reveal is the myriad manifestations our generation’s activism takes. We are abortion providers, clinic escorts, fundraising champions, writers, documentarians, and storytellers.

As an OB-GYN resident in the Bronx, one of New York City’s most medically underserved boroughs, Sarp bears daily witness to the vital role abortion care plays in pregnant people’s health and lives. Too often, he sees the devastating consequences of barriers to care, whether in the form of insurance coverage, gestational age limits, financial hardships, or support system struggles. Despite New York state’s more liberal policies on abortion, access remains a challenge for many of its residents and his patients.

Providing abortion care is an awesome responsibility, one that brings with it tremendous emotional rewards. Sarp feels it when a patient gently squeezes his hand immediately after terminating a wanted yet anomalous pregnancy. He hears it in the thoughtful thank-you notes he receives from patients long gone from his office. He sees it in the joyful tears of a patient whose abortion he performed six months ago, but who just found out she is pregnant with a partner who does not physically, emotionally, or sexually abuse her. He clings to these moments as he cares for patients and when he marches in support of their rights to choose when, whether, and with whom to be pregnant.

Sarp is a product of Medical Students for Choice (MSFC), an international nonprofit with a mission to create the next generation of abortion providers and pro-choice physicians. Students involved with MSFC take a directly activist role, working to destigmatize abortion care among medical students and residents, and to persuade medical schools and residency programs to include abortion as a part of the reproductive health services curriculum.

For Lauren, enabling access means being a support system and sometimes a human shield between patients and hateful, shaming protesters. Her Saturday mornings are spent on the sidewalk, escorting patients and companions from the safety of their cars to the safety of the clinic. Young people comprise a plurality of volunteers at Lauren’s clinic, and they show up every weekend to support those who need it.

Lauren has held sobbing teenage rape victims as they were retraumatized by the violent screams of the men outside the clinic doors. She has watched as a companion screamed at a protester, “You don’t know what we’re going through,” as he walked his partner into the clinic to terminate a wanted pregnancy.

Escorting patients means being insulted and even endangered. Lauren has been berated, harassed, threatened, and sexually harassed by protesters while volunteering. But she has also been hugged, praised, thanked, and supported by grateful patients, their companions, and even passersby.

The misconception that young people are complacent belies not only our lived experiences, but the experiences of our colleagues.

Young people are at the forefront of work with the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) and state-based grassroots abortion funds. “Well over half of NNAF’s member organizations are proud to have young people in leadership positions as board members, staff, and hotline volunteers,” said NNAF Executive Director Yamani Hernandez in an email to Rewire. “Abortion funds are a welcoming place for the power and brilliance of young people because we recognize our movement is stronger when we support and amplify their leadership.”

We see young people bravely sharing their abortion stories to shatter stigma. Amanda Williams, the executive director of the Texas-based Lilith Fund, and NNAF Policy Representative Renee Bracey Sherman are among many telling their abortion stories to the world, challenging a culture of silence and shame around this basic health-care service.

And yes, young people are a visible presence at rallies for accessible abortion care. In March, they joined older activists to support abortion access at the Supreme Court during oral arguments for the Texas abortion case (and we were among them!).

On a daily basis, we see young people embodying the second-wave feminist ideal that “the personal is political” by defending abortion on the ground. Youth are making abortion accessible by doing the hands-on, personal work of funding abortions, providing abortions, escorting patients into clinics, and in some states, driving and housing patients.

This is a directly political act, particularly in states where abortion is increasingly inaccessible. Rallies and marches are good and important. But they don’t mean much to a low-income woman in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley when she has two weeks left to obtain an abortion in her state and nowhere within hundreds of miles to go. She needs money, transportation, an escort, and a provider. She needs actual, tangible help. And that is what young people are doing.

Not only that, but young people are making the abortion rights movement more inclusive and more effective. In many ways, the abortion rights frameworks and tactics of the 1960s and 1970s don’t hold water for the movement today; our social movements have changed, and so has technology. Young people are demanding that the right to a safe and legal abortion be contextualized along all other reproductive rights, including youth-led campaigns like #NoTeenShame, which seeks to destigmatize pregnant and parenting teens. Young people are raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for abortion care by engaging social and digital media, leveraging the support of our followers to make access a reality. And young people are pushing the movement to be more gender-inclusive, to reflect the fact that not everyone who has an abortion identifies as a cisgender woman.

Young people aren’t checked out. We are engaged. We are working to make abortion accessible in an increasingly hostile landscape. Given the opportunity and support, young people can be the difference makers. So the next time critics of millenials are looking to blame someone for the current state of abortion rights, don’t look at us. We have work to do.

News Human Rights

Criminal Charges in Flint Water Crisis ‘Only the Beginning’

Kanya D’Almeida

"These charges are only the beginning and there will be more to come. That I can guarantee you,” Schuette said Wednesday at a press conference.

A Flint, Michigan, judge has approved criminal charges against three government employees involved in the city’s water crisis, marking the first time officials have been brought to book since Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette in January launched an investigation into the public health calamity.

The investigative team is tasked with probing possible criminal liability in the Flint water emergency, which began in April 2014 when the city switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the corrosive Flint River. That was followed by a spike in blood lead levels and other symptoms of lead poisoning in residents.

District Judge Tracy Collier-Nix on Wednesday approved felony and misdemeanor charges against two state regulators and one Flint employee, including charges of manipulating monitoring reports and the results of lead-in-water testing, and failing to require corrosion control treatment of Flint River water—a measure that scientists say would have prevented the water from eating away at lead pipes and fixtures in Flint’s aging plumbing system.

State and federal agencies have for months engaged in a protracted game of political ping-pong over who bears ultimate responsibility for allowing some 100,000 mostly low-income Black residents to consume, cook with, and bathe in lead-contaminated water, which causes, among other things, permanent neurological damage in young children.

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Michael Prysby, a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) district engineer, faces six criminal counts, including misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, and violation of the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act. Stephen Busch, a supervisor with the DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water, faces charges on five criminal counts related to the same violations.

Flint Utilities Administrator Michael Glasgow has been slapped with two counts: willful neglect of office and tampering with evidence.

Busch is on paid leave following suspension, and Prysby has taken another job with the state DEQ, the Associated Press reported.

A felony charge of misconduct in office carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, while conspiracy to tamper with evidence carries a maximum four-year prison term, according to a Detroit Free Press report.

“These charges are only the beginning and there will be more to come. That I can guarantee you,” Schuette said Wednesday at a press conference, the Detroit Free Press reported.

“So many things went so terribly wrong, and tragically wrong, in Flint,” he added, explaining that no one has been ruled out from investigation. “Everything’s on the table,” Schuette said.