Fed up with the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, more than 1,700 residents have filed a class action lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), demanding $722 million in damages.
The lawsuit accuses officials of “negligence … in its mishandling of the Flint Water Crisis.”
Karina Petri, founder of Project Flint, told Rewire that it is high time people took action in an almost four-year crisis that has played havoc with public health and eroded public trust.
“Perhaps legal action would force the EPA to be more transparent,” she said. “Justice for Flint is needed. Power needs to be given back to the people.”
It is “an undisputed fact” that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Flint “failed or refused to use corrosion control,” according to the lawsuit filed on Monday in U.S. District Court in Michigan.
Contaminated water from the Flint River was supplied from April 2014 to October 2015 and residents were “exposed to the toxic and highly corrosive” water for almost 18 months, the suit states. The water was “malodorous, tasted bad and appeared to be cloudy with floating dirt or metallic particles,” it adds.
Although Flint reverted to buying clean water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in October 2015, “the 539 days of exposure to highly corrosive Flint River water ruined the lead service lines, hot water tanks and other plumbing apparatus,” according to the lawsuit.
As of November 2016, the water delivered to Flint residents remained “unsafe to drink, use for cooking or use for bathing,” the court document states.
The EPA is not the only one to be blame, said Petri, a Milwaukee resident who began the Project Flint grassroots organization and has visited Flint more than 20 times since high levels of lead were first discovered in the drinking water.
“This is a real pandemic and it’s not just in Flint, and it’s not just lead, it’s other chemicals and the land is contaminated too,” she said.
A Reuters investigation recently found that almost 3,000 areas across the United States have lead poisoning rates far higher than Flint’s. More than 1,100 of these communities had a rate of elevated-lead blood tests at least four times higher than Flint’s.
Petri said she and her three children use filtered and boiled water at home. The family long ago stopped using tap water for cooking or drinking.
Congressional Republicans last month quietly ended a year-long investigation into Flint’s problem, just after Obama signed a $10 billion water infrastructure bill allocating $170 million to address the lead problem there.
Petri is concerned there are economic and political reasons for not replacing the infrastructure or solving the problem and that residents will one day have to buy their drinking water from companies buying up water rights across the nation.
“The trauma and the broken trust are real issues there and a real concern,” Petri said.
Flint resident and Flint Rising activist Melissa Mays posted photos on social media of the “many shades” of the discolored tap water, noting that the city was 1,014 days into the crisis.
“I think that it is absolutely appalling that the poisoned residents of Flint have to spend their time, energy, and money going to court to try to force the governments that failed us to do what is right,” Mays said in a message to Rewire. “Because of the government’s unwillingness to take care of the people they poisoned, we know these legal battles can take years but we are standing strong and fighting because we know Flint is worth it.
Petri noted that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s (R) Chief of Staff Jarrod Agen is headed to Washington for a federal job under Vice President Mike Pence.
Petri added that concerns are high about what will happen next with President Trump in office after he put EPA grant funding on hold until it is reviewed. Officials later stated that funding to Flint would not be affected.
Petri is not convinced given her first-hand experience with the agency.
“I’ve attended the meetings, I’ve called the officials,” she told Rewire. “I’ve spoken to the EPA and I’ve listened to them lie. I do know that the EPA is guilty.”
But so are city officials, Snyder, and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, she added. She hopes that the lawsuit puts the spotlight on them as well.
Meanwhile, one of the first major lawsuits filed by concerned residents in 2015 was dismissed this week, the Detroit News reported.
Led by Mays, the plaintiffs alleged federal constitutional and civil rights violations, due process violations, and asked for damages including medical, educational, and nutritional support for residents.
U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara dismissed the claims Thursday saying they would circumvent the Safe Drinking Water Act’s procedures, according to the Detroit News.