Federal lawsuit seeks replacement of all Flint’s lead pipes

© Brett Carlsen / Getty Images / AFP
A new federal lawsuit over Flint’s water contamination seeks to force city and state officials to resolve violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, demanding they replace all of the lead pipes in the city’s water system to ensure safe drinking water.

In its complaint, an environmental and civil rights coalition argue that city and state officials failed to properly treat the water for corrosion, test it for lead, notify residents of the results, and accurately report whether the correct sample sites were being selected.

“The only way to permanently and completely fix the problem of lead in drinking water is to conduct the full replacement of the lead-containing pipes and solder in the water system,” said attorney Sarah Tallman of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed in Detroit US District Court.

Other plaintiffs include the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, Concerned Pastors for Social Action, and Flint resident Melissa Mays.

A special prosecutor has been appointed to investigate how the city of Flint exposed at least 100,000 residents to lead poisoning. The financially strapped city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager in April of 2014 when it switched its source of tap water from Detroit’s system to the nearby Flint River in a cost-cutting move. Operators at Flint’s water treatment plant failed to treat the water to make it less corrosive, causing older lead pipes to dissolve into the tap water.

“Everyone in this country deserves and expects safe drinking water, regardless of your race, economic status or zip code,” Pastor Allen Overton of Concerned Pastors for Social Action said in a statement announcing the lawsuit, according to MLive

“The residents of Flint were stripped of their democratically elected authority and, in the name of saving a few dollars, have been forced to sacrifice their health in the process. This community deserves accountability, transparency, and justice, in addition to water that is safe to drink.”

The lawsuits name the city of Flint and the state officials who were overseeing the city when emergency managers were appointed to run its affairs.

Governor Rick Snyder has estimated that it could cost up to $55 million to repair what officials have estimated are 15,000 damaged lead service lines delivering water to homes and other buildings.

The lawsuit says the pipes should be replaced at no cost to customers, and also seeks relief for any medical harm suffered. Lead is a neurotoxin that can damage the brain and cause other health problems.

Governor Snyder has repeatedly apologized for the delay in addressing Flint’s water problems, which have led some critics to call for his resignation or arrest. Residents of the city had been complaining for months about elevated levels of lead in their drinking water and the blood of some children.

In response to questions about the lawsuit, Snyder said at a press conference on Wednesday that he could not discuss pending litigation. However, he did say that “a lot of work is being done to even understand where the lead services lines fully are… The short-term issue is about recoating the pipes and that will be based on third-party experts saying the water is safe,” reported the Associated Press.

Snyder said the government has created an office in Flint to increase administrative presence, calling it the beginning of a long-term effort.

The state Senate is due to vote on the supplemental appropriation of $28 million to address Flint’s immediate problems. The funding would go to six departments to enable the state to increase National Guard efforts to distribute water, water filters, and tests, as well as to increase the number of nurses in schools, and replace fixtures in some public places.

More than $17 million would go to providing emergency bottled water, filters, blood testing, and other services. The bill also includes $5 million to aid the city in covering the loss of revenue from unpaid water bills and the cost of new water system infrastructure. Over 186,000 cases of water have been distributed to date, plus 93,000 water filters, and over 62,000 water test kits.

It has been 22 days since Governor Snyder declared a state of emergency over Flint’s water poisoning.

Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver, has announced that she has hired Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards to oversee all water testing conducted by the state and federal government, adding that he will be “fully independent,” report directly to her, and be paid through private donations, according to AP.

Edwards’ extensive testing helped bring the city’s lead problems to light. Mayor Weaver also said there was a House spending bill pending in the state Senate which includes an additional $3 million to help the city cover losses from unpaid water bills.

“Flint residents should not have to pay for water they did not and are not using,” Weaver said. “Once we have more accurate numbers from the Flint water department, we will revisit what is right for our citizens.”

Meanwhile, Michigan Democrats in the US Congress introduced a bill on Wednesday that would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to notify the public and local health departments if the amount of lead found in public water systems warrants action in the event that the state has failed to do so.

The bill is designed to close a federal and state gap in the EPA’s authority. Although lead levels in Flint spiked after the city switched its drinking water source, and the EPA knew about the threat and told officials in the state to take precautions, the agency wasn’t required to follow up on or enforce its findings, and the state never warned local residents about the potential health risks.

“When the people of Flint raised concerns about the safety of their water, the EPA tested that water and found that it was dangerous to drink,” Senator Debbie Stabenow said, reported The Hill.

“The State of Michigan chose to criticize and ignore those findings, which has caused irreversible harm to potentially a generation of children. This bill will give the EPA clear legal authority to provide notice to the public when a state is not taking action on a public health safety crisis.”