POLITICS
02/02/2017 10:27 pm ET

Flint Residents Sue EPA, Alleging Negligence In Drinking Water Crisis

The court action comes as the Trump administration is looking to gut the agency's budget.

More than 1,700 residents of Flint, Michigan, have filed a class action lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency, accusing officials of “negligent” mismanagement of the city’s drinking water crisis.

The suit, accusing the EPA of a critical failure to supervise local officials who allowed extraordinarily high levels of toxic lead to leach into the city’s drinking water, comes amid President Donald Trump’s plans to gut the budget at the already overwhelmed federal agency.

The EPA is charged with helping guide local officials to monitor environmental toxins. If the agency determines city officials have failed to take “timely and protective action” in the event of a crisis, such as the contamination of Flint’s water supply, it’s is required by law to take emergency action to protect citizens. Yet despite knowledge of the danger as early as October 2014, the EPA failed to take action until January 2016, according to the suit filed earlier this week in U.S. District Court in Michigan.

“As of November 25, 2016, the two and one half year anniversary [of the Flint crisis], the water delivered to the people of Flint remain[ed] unsafe to drink, use for cooking or use for bathing,” the suit charges.

The lawsuit is demanding $722 million in damages for plaintiffs who suffered a loss of property values as well as serious heath effects, including lead poisoning, various illnesses, dermatological disorders, loss of hair and gastrointestinal disorders resulting in “emotional distress” and “deprivation of a quality of life.” 

An attorney for the plaintiffs said the case is strengthened by the fact that some local officials have publicly admitted culpability in the crisis (and several employees have already been charged with crimes). He is not particularly concerned by the Trump administration’s plans to gut the EPA.

The “beauty of the judiciary is that it’s independent of politics,” Michael Pitt of Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers told The Huffington Post. That said, he added, the outcome of the case could affect future decisions about the value of the EPA and its policing. “The lesson could be that the judge awards close to a billion dollars in damages, which would take a big chunk out of the federal budget that could have been used for other things.”

The Flint water scandal blew up in 2014 after the city switched its water source from the Detroit system to the Flint River and failed to ensure that corrosion inhibitors were used to stop lead leaching into Flint’s pipes. Residents not only avoided drinking or cooking with the tap water, they were also afraid of bathing or showering in the water. The most alarming impact of lead contamination is neurological damage to children’s developing brains. State officials said last week that lead levels in Flint’s drinking water had fallen below federal limits. But officials warned residents to keep using filtered water as the city’s old lead pipes are replaced.

Several other cities are now facing their own water crises. A Reuters investigation in late 2016 found that nearly 3,000 other communities have lead levels at least as high as Flint’s. Earlier this week some 100,000 Pittsburgh residents were warned to boil their tap water before using because of concerns about low levels of chlorination. The warning has since been lifted.  

A Reuters/Ipsos poll last month found that more than 60 percent of Americans would like the EPA’s powers preserved or strengthened under the Trump administration. Some 39 percent would like to see the EPA “strengthened or expanded,” while another 22 percent hope it will “remain the same,” according to the poll. 

The Flint crisis has become “iconic” and has served as a warning about the quality of the nation’s drinking water, said Pitt. “What happened in Flint alerted people in other cities to be more aware of the safety of their water, which is something we used to take for granted,” he said.

During his confirmation hearings to head the EPA, controversial Trump pick Scott Pruitt was asked if there is “any safe level of lead that can be taken into the human body” (there isn’t). Pruitt was uninformed about the issue, responding: “That is something I have not reviewed nor know about.”

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved him on Thursday, in a 11-0 vote, after suspending its own rules to dodge a Democratic boycott. Pruitt is expected to be approved by the full Senate next week. 

The EPA has not commented on the suit. The agency has 60 days to respond to the Flint court action.

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