Emergency Declaration for Flint Contaminated Water
Since April 2014, the city of Flint in Michigan, has been at the centre of a shocking water crisis. Residents unknowingly consumed harmful supplies which were contaminated with various toxins, including lead.
As the location of the largest General Motors plant in the U.S.A, Flint was once a prosperous place to live, but during the 1980’s an economic decline took hold and the factory began to downsize. Eventually, Michigan State was forced to take on Flint’s financial problems, after a shortfall of $25 million was predicted for the city. Their efforts to save money in the aftermath of this crisis, are what led to both homes and businesses being connected to an unsafe supply.
The city revealed that in order to cut the costs of supplying fresh water, they would be building a pipeline from Lake Huron to Flint, but in the meantime, it was the nearby river which was used as a source. Almost immediately people noticed a different taste, look and smell in their drinking supply.
Investigators from the State University, Virginia Tech, were the first to look into resident’s claims. They concluded the Flint supply had 19 times the corrosiveness of that in Detroit, confirming that river water was wearing away old pipes and the resultant decay created a very different type of aqua. As a result, they recommended that the state should tell residents that their mains supply was not safe, for either cooking or drinking.
The Environmental Protection Agency also moved in to investigate in 2015, but the damage was already being done. As a result of repeated testing, their November 2015 report confirmed that unsafe levels of lead were reaching local people’s homes through the mains. Prolonged consumption of this heavy metal can affect the way our bodies work, especially our nervous system, heart and kidneys. In growing children, a raft of other problems can appear, including developmental delays, behavioural problems and hearing difficulties.
After this official confirmation was made public, a number of local residents banded together to charge a class-action lawsuit. They argued that their supply did not have an added anti-corrosive agent - an omission which contravened federal law. As a consequence of this omission, the iron in water pipes was being eroded and the liquid inside took on a brown hue. Worse still, because more than 50% of all the pipework leading to resident’s homes was made from lead, this corrosion allowed lead to seep into the supply, as well as iron.
Since the first lawsuit in 2014, many more have followed, including a number of subsequent class-action suits aimed at suing the city of Flint, as well as certain city officials and city employees. These individuals were all considered by the plaintiffs to have been involved with drinking supply problems, either because they oversaw the switch, or because they should have been scrutinising the water quality. The types of reparation pursued ranged from refunds of water bills, to financial compensation which reflects the potential damage caused by lead poisoning.
In September 2015, paediatrician, Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha and her team from the Hurley Medical Centre, discovered that the number of children with higher levels of lead in their system was twice as many as before the switch to a new supply. The state reacted by testing the quality of school drinking supplies and handing out water filters. Then, later that year in December 2015, a state of emergency was declared.
Prior to a visit from the then president, Barack Obama, in May 2016, more funding was requested by the State to cover the cost of new pipework. In November of the same year, another of the class-actions brought by residents was victorious in court. A judge ordered the state and city to begin directly supplying residents who did not have a verified water filter, with safely bottled water.
The EPA extended their federal emergency declaration for Flint in 2016, but waited until March of 2017 to announce it was providing $100 million to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. This meant the necessary improvements to the city’s pipework could begin, but the extent of the work, which will include replacing pipes beneath streets and those which run into people’s homes, is vast. For the 18,000 homes in Flint, their ordeal is unlikely to be over until 2020.
Charges continue to be made against various people, including some state officials who have been charged with involuntary manslaughter. Plus, the House of Representatives has asked Michigan Governor, Rick Snyder, to clarify some of the points he made about the crisis in 2016, which appear to be inconsistent with the court testimony given by one of his aides in 2015.
Although the legal ramifications are likely to continue for years if not decades, in April 2018, Governor Snyder announced that the distribution of free bottled water in Flint would be stopped. This leaves residents with a hugely difficult decision; do they choose to pay more for bottled water they know is safe, or do they take a worrying risk and go back to using their home supply?