A United States District Court judge ruled on Thursday that residents of Flint, Michigan, are within their rights to sue federal government agencies for alleged “mishandling” of the city’s ongoing water crisis.
The residents’ suit — filed by as many as 5,000 residents in the Eastern District of Michigan — alleges that Environmental Protection Agency officials have been negligent in their response to elevated levels of lead in the city’s drinking water.
According to The Detroit News, claims in the suit include allegations of the EPA’s failure to promptly investigate the threat posed by the city’s new water supply, as well as the agency’s unwillingness to exert its enforcement authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act, a power that would have allowed the agency to intervene and protect the public.
The residents’ suit also alleges that the EPA knew of the risks and the lack of information being given to the public by local officials, but failed to inform them.
Federal Judge Linda Parker was unwilling to rule Thursday on “ultimate liability,” but said the suit could move forward, adding that the federal government is not “immune” to such a suit according to MLive.com.
“[The court] can today state with certainty that 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,” Parker wrote in her order.
“These lies went on for months while the people of Flint continued to be poisoned.”
The controversy initially arose in 2014 when the city changed its long-standing drinkable water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the more cost-effective Flint River.
As a result of poor water treatment practices, lead soon began leaching from the city’s pipes into the water supply.
The Detroit News also reported that as early as October 2014 the EPA had been notified by at least one resident — Jan Burgess, a plaintiff in the suit — of problems with the water.
An internal EPA memo from Region 5 water expert Miguel del Toral had also “warned of Flint water problems” as early as June 2015.
But with no action pursued until January of 2016, more than 100,000 city residents were exposed to elevated lead levels, and the city water supply stayed at undrinkable levels of harmful matter until at least 2017.
This judgment is, however, contested amongst various officials, and many residents still question the levels of contamination within the water supply in 2019.
According to Michael Pitt — the Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers partner representing the Flint residents in their suit — Judge Parker’s ruling is a satisfactory start for city residents seeking some sort of closure on the subject.
“This ruling will shake up the EPA, which has refused to accept responsibility in causing the catastrophe,” Pitt said.
“The EPA is mandated by Congress to be a watchdog over state environmental operations and is required by law to take over drinking water systems when a significant public health risk becomes apparent.”
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