Residents of Flint, Michigan, are suing over dangerous lead levels in their tap water resulting from state and local efforts to save money by switching the city's water supply last year.
"In their short-sighted effort to save a buck, the leaders who were supposed to be protecting Flint’s citizens instead left them exposed to dangerously high levels of lead contamination," Michael Steinberg, legal director for the ACLU of Michigan, said in a release. The ACLU, along with the National Resources Defense Council, a national nonprofit that advocates on environmental issues, on Monday filed a notice of intent to sue the city and state.
Several Flint families last week filed a separate lawsuit against local and state governments seeking class-action status in federal court. Lead poisoning, whether from water or paint chips, can cause physical and permanent neurological harm. Children are particularly vulnerable.
Last year, Flint officials and an emergency manager appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) switched the city's water supply from Detroit's system to the Flint River. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality admitted last month that it had failed to implement proper corrosion controls, and the new water wound up leaching dangerous amounts of lead from city pipes.
"Not only were the city and state’s actions dangerous and misguided, they were illegal, too," Steinberg said.
Despite complaints from residents and reports that the water had high lead levels, local and state officials denied there was a problem -- until a local pediatrician documented a spike in blood lead levels among Flint children, prompting the city to switch back to Detroit's water.
"This action is about holding the government accountable for failing to protect the public health of an entire community," Anjali Waikar, an attorney with the NRDC, said in a statement. "This case also highlights a troubling trend in which the government is willing to turn a blind eye when it comes to protecting the lives of poor, black people."
The NRDC and ACLU said the state is still failing to follow water-testing protocols set forth by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, and that they'll file their suit in 60 days if Snyder and other officials don't remedy these violations.
Sara Wurfel, a spokeswoman for Snyder, declined to comment on the lawsuits but defended the governor's response to the crisis, noting he has appointed a task force to figure what went wrong.
"The governor has outlined a detailed multiple-step action plan for both immediate, mid and long term," Wurfel said. "He has also appointed a task force doing a very important job of reviewing all past actions. They are a bipartisan group of people of the highest integrity, experts in their fields and widely respected who are going to do a very thorough, objective review."
Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech University civil engineering professor, helped expose the high lead levels in Flint's water.
"My heart goes out them, and I wish them the best in trying to hold agencies accountable for the irreparable damage done to Flint’s innocent children," Edwards said, noting that similar efforts to hold officials in Washington, D.C., accountable for toxic water in the early 2000s have not yet succeeded.
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This article has been updated to include comment from Snyder's office.
Arthur Delaney is a co-host of the "So That Happened" politics podcast. Listen to the latest episode: