A federal judge this week said residents of Flint, Mich., can sue the federal government over its response to the city's drinking water crisis.
Judge Linda Parker of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan said Thursday the government is not immune from a lawsuit. She did not rule on whether federal employees were negligent in addressing Flint’s contaminated water.
Residents have long blamed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for waiting too long to intervene after a change in water treatment practices allowed lead to leach into the city’s tap water.
The contamination began in 2014 but continued for years as local and state officials provided inaccurate information about the safety and issues with city water. EPA officials knew residents were not being warned of the contamination.
“These lies went on for months while the people of Flint continued to be poisoned,” Parker, an Obama appointee, wrote in her order.
The EPA referred inquiries to the Justice Department, which declined to comment for this story.
Flint residents began complaining about water quality issues shortly after the city switched its water source in April 2014, but city and state officials denied any problems until studies from Virginia Tech University researchers and Hurley Medical Center in Flint showed high lead levels in both water and children’s blood.
Criminal and civil cases have accused Michigan and Flint officials of being responsible for the crisis, but broader suits against other officials and agencies have been slowly proceeding.
An appeals court ruled in January that the city of Flint was not immune from federal civil lawsuits. A class-action suit against former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) was permitted to proceed earlier this month, according to The Detroit News.
In the suit reviewed by Parker, plaintiffs argue that the EPA failed to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to address the health risks from the water or the inaction of city and state officials. Federal attorneys argue the EPA should be immune from the suit because Michigan law would not hold private individuals liable in similar circumstances.
“The lead-contaminated public water supply system will affect the residents for years and likely generations to come,” Parker wrote in her order. “The acts leading to the creation of the Flint Water Crisis, alleged to be rooted in lies, recklessness and profound disrespect have and will continue to produce a heinous impact for the people of Flint.”
Lead contamination could have been avoided by adding corrosion control chemicals to city water — something one EPA whistleblower noted to both state officials and his colleagues.
Miguel Del Toral, a regional EPA employee, had urged state and federal officials to take action.
“They have no corrosion control treatment in place for over a year now and they have lead service lines. It’s just basic chemistry on lead solubility,” he wrote in an email to colleagues in mid-2015 that was cited in Parker's order. “You will have high lead leaching into the water where you are doing nothing to mitigate that. We don’t need to drop a bowling ball off every building in every town to know that it will fall to the ground in all of these places.”
Updated at 3:13 p.m.