Flint, Michigan residents who say the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mishandled the water crisis in their city will get their day in court, thanks to a ruling last week by a federal judge.
Residents filed a lawsuit against the EPA in 2017, and the government tried to get it dismissed in 2018, claiming the agency was “exempt from liability under the Federal Tort Claims Act’s discretionary function exception,” according to the Detroit News. The residents had claimed the agency responded negligently and didn’t use the department’s authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act to “intervene, investigate, and warn about the health risks,” the News reported.
U.S. District Judge Linda Parker denied the government’s attempt to dismiss the case, writing that “Congress intended to leave the primary responsibility for overseeing public water systems with the states,” when it wrote the Safe Drinking Water Act, but “expressly directed the EPA to intervene under specified conditions.”
“…The EPA’s failure to warn Flint residents of the severe health risks the city’s water supply posed to them cannot be justified by any permissible exercise of policy judgment,” Parker wrote, according to the News. “Within weeks of the switch to the Flint River, the people of Flint suffered rashes and hair loss.”
“The EPA was well aware that the Flint River was highly corrosive and posed a significant danger of lead leaching out of the city’s lead-based service lines at alarming rates into residents’ homes. The EPA was well aware of the health risks posed by lead exposure, particularly to children and pregnant women,” she continued “… Further, the EPA knew that (the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) and Flint officials were not warning Flint’s residents that they were being supplied lead-laced water.”
Michael Pitt, an attorney representing the residents against the government, explained the significance of the ruling to the News.
“This ruling will shake up the EPA, which has refused to accept responsibility in causing the catastrophe,” he said. “The EPA is mandated by Congress to be a watchdog over state environmental operations and is required by law to take over drinking water systems when a significant public health risk becomes apparent.”
Pitt is apparently representing some 5,000 residents of Flint.
The Flint Water Crisis, as it’s referred to, began in 2012 when county officials announced a plan that would reduce costs by switching the water supply from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River. The city approved the switch, but the river was contaminated and not properly filtered, leading to health problems for residents due to high levels of lead.
Four Michigan government officials resigned over its handling of the crisis, and then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, apologized for the crisis and budged tens of millions of dollars to help alleviate Flint’s problems.
While media outlets tried to place the blame on the Republican governor, all levels of government failed Flint – from the city government on up to the U.S. government. Now the residents who sued the U.S. government will get their day in court, thanks to Parker’s ruling.