Flint’s continuing water crisis is back in the news again as it moves through the judicial system. On July 28th, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed previous decisions by U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara, who dismissed two suits related to the water crisis.
Both suits alleged that the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights had been infringed by state officials.
One suit, filed by Flint residents Beatrice Boler, Pastor Edwin Anderson and Alline Anderson as well as Flint business EPC Sales, sought $150 million in damages against Flint’s former emergency managers and mayor, Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder, a selection of state governmental departments and the state of Michigan itself. The money was intended to compensate victims of the water crisis as well as pay for infrastructure repairs to Flint’s famously corroded water lines and lead pipes.
The other is a class action suit brought by several Flint residents against many of the same defendants.
Judge O’Meara dismissed the suits on grounds that legal action related to the water crisis in Flint must be brought under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Constitutional challenges based upon a denial of due process and equal protection were inappropriate. However, the Appeals court in Ann Arbor disagreed, asserting that aspects of Flint’s water crisis that may not necessarily violate the Safe Drinking Water Act may still violate residents’ civil rights. Suits brought under the Safe Drinking Water Act cannot seek monetary damages, but such damages can be pursued when constitutional rights are violated.
These suits were revived just as the state of Michigan is poised to begin closing water distribution points around the city of Flint. During the ongoing water crisis, Flint residents wanting safe water for drinking, cooking, and even bathing, had to pick up bottled water at centralized distribution centers. For residents who lacked cars, worked long hours, or those with disabilities this could be quite a challenge, but home delivery for all residents has long been a non-starter with state officials. Water distribution centers will begin closing on August 11th, and home deliveries for several residents will also cease that day. More sites will close on September 5th.
Although it’s long been suspected that the switch to corrosive Flint River water caused the water crisis by leaching lead from Flint’s aging water pipes, that suspicion was recently confirmed by scientists. Researchers at the University of Michigan studied samples from ten of Flint’s water service lines. Microscopic examination of the layer of oxidized metal scale inside the pipes revealed a pitted, honeycomb-like texture. The lead from the pipes leached away (and into residents’ bodies) leaving behind the tiny holes. This study brings into crisp focus the need for constant attention to water chemistry as lead pipes and water infrastructure age in place across America.
This is why the Trump administration’s budget cuts at the EPA matter to all of us. Most of the money budgeted to the EPA doesn’t stay there. It flows through the department and outward to states and municipalities who use it for upgrading water infrastructure and other projects that keep us safer. According to Keith Fusinski, a toxicologist at the EPA responsible for monitoring drinking water, it would take $384 billion over the next 20 years in order to upgrade our national water infrastructure to a level that would guarantee safe water from everyone’s faucets. Instead, it’s being funded at about $863 million annually, so we’ll never get there.
Businesses want tax cuts to improve shareholder value and the bottom line, and citizens want tax cuts so they have more money for all the things they need. But unless we decide to pool our tax savings on our own and buy our cities and towns some new pipes (you were going to do that with your refund, right?), any community could have the next water crisis. Choosing what parts of an expensive civilization to give up in order to devote our resources to some other part of our expensive civilization is catabolic collapse in action. Drink up!
Related: Flint Water Suit Settled, Still Bad