New federal lawsuit alleges state violated Safe Drinking Water Act in Flint

Jan 27, 2016

Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

A coalition of activist organizations filed a complaint in federal court Wednesday morning against Michigan government officials alleging the state has violated the Safe Drinking Water Act during the Flint water crisis.

The suit, filed by the Concerned Pastors for Social Action, the ACLU of Michigan, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., and Melissa Mays, a Flint resident, was filed in the U.S. District Court in Detroit.

In part, the complaint reads:

The harms suffered by Flint residents will not be addressed until city and state officials properly treat Flint’s water to control lead, properly test the water for lead contamination, promptly notify residents of testing results, and report their activities to state regulators, all as required by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The case alleges the state and City of Flint repeatedly violated federal laws regarding water contamination and failed to ensure there is safe drinking water for the public.

The lawsuit asks a federal judge to order the defendants replace all lead pipes in Flint at no cost to the users of the lines and to ensure defendants do not commit any more actions against the Safe Drinking Water Act. It also asks for defendants to remedy the damage done already, in whatever way the court deems necessary.

The defendants include Nick Khouri, the state’s treasury secretary; Natasha Henderson, Flint’s city administrator; and members of the Flint Receivership Advisory Board, which was created to ensure a smooth transition from state control with an emergency manager in the city, to control under the Flint mayor and city council.

From a statement by Pastor Allen Overton, co-founder of Concerned Pastors for Social Action:

"Everyone in this country deserves and expects safe drinking water, regardless of your race, economic status or zip code. 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."

At a press conference on Wednesday addressing the next steps for dealing with the crisis, Gov. Rick Snyder declined to comment on the lawsuit. 

The Safe Drinking Water Act, established in 1974, requires the Environmental Protection Agency to create minimum standards for safe tap water. The complaint cites a part of the act which requires the EPA to “implement an ‘optimal’ treatment program to reduce corrosion of lead in piles and solder” and that water systems must conduct monitoring for lead in household tap water.

The complaint says the city failed to do four things:

  1. properly treat water to control for corrosion,
  2. properly monitor Flint residents' drinking water,
  3. create public notifications of tab monitoring results, and 
  4. meet reporting requirements for the water system to send results to the state.

“Had they been monitoring properly and in accordance to the rule, it's very likely these lead issues would've come to light much earlier than they had,” said Dimple Chaudhary, a senior attorney at NRDC, at a press conference at the Saints of God Church in Flint on Wednesday.

On Jan. 21, the EPA issued an emergency order, ruling the lead contamination in Flint water as a substantial threat to public health:

“EPA has determined the State of Michigan and the City of Flint’s responses to the drinking water crisis in Flint have been inadequate to protect public health, there are serious, ongoing concerns with delays, lack of adequate transparency and capacity to safely manage the drinking water system,” the EPA said in a statement at the time.

In April 2014, the city of Flint switched its source of drinking water from Lake Huron from the Detroit Sewerage and Water Department to the Flint River. The switch resulted in contaminated drinking water, children suffering from lead poisoning, and a public health crisis.

The events in Flint have gained national attention over the last month. President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint earlier this month. The news led several 2016 presidential candidates to comment on the crisis, resulted in hefty donations from celebrities, and produced protests calling for the resignation of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

This case is not the only lawsuit filed regarding the Flint water crisis. At least three other cases have been filed over the last few months, one of which seeks to make the state and Gov. Snyder financially accountable for the crisis.