The Ongoing Water Crisis in Flint, Michigan

Last week, citizens of Flint, Michigan filed two class-action lawsuits against Gov. Rick Snyder, Michigan Department of Health & Human Services, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and other government officials.  These follow a declared state of emergency in Flint, a pending investigation from the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Michigan, a declared federal emergency by President Obama, and an emergency order issued from the EPA to the state of Michigan.

For those not familiar with the unfolding crisis, let us recap.  Elevated levels of lead have been found to be present in Flint’s drinking water.  The crisis began almost two years ago. In April 2014, as part of a cost-saving effort, Flint switched its water supply from Lake Huron via Detroit’s water system to the Flint River.  Residents immediately began complaining about the water’s smell and taste, citing rashes, hair loss, and other health problems attributed to the water.  Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality repeatedly said that the water was safe, but outside researchers at Virginia Tech found extremely high levels of lead in the water of several homes.

In October 2015, city officials publicly acknowledged that there was indeed a problem.  As a result of mounting evidence and increasing public pressure, the city switched back to its original water supply.  Remedial efforts are now underway, but this is just the beginning. State and federal emergency funding will focus on short-term, immediate solutions, such as providing bottled water, filters, and testing kits to residents.  Long term solutions will have to focus on cleaning up Flint’s water, upgrading infrastructure to replace lead pipes, and most importantly, addressing the long-term health implications of dangerous lead exposure.

The National Guard distributes bottled water to residents in Flint, Michigan.  

Though action is now being taken almost two years after the crisis began, the effects of this man-made disaster can last a lifetime, especially among children.  This current crisis, as well as the emerging investigation in Sebring, Ohio, is a painful reminder of the history of lead contamination in America.

To fully understand the crisis in Flint, government, environmental, and public health officials, as well as attorneys from both sides would do well to incorporate historical research into their investigations.  This is often a critical component that helps our legal clients build their environmental and toxic tort cases.  In addition to identifying responsible and potentially responsible parties (PRPs), historical researchers like those at Taylor & Hammel are typically asked to unearth federal, state, and local records that detail the extent of each PRPs involvement.  Such records also help to determine the magnitude of accountability that each PRP must have in remedial efforts.

Though the Flint water crisis is unique, it is not singular.  Several other stories concerning contaminated waterways have gained national media attention in recent years. Last August, the EPA inadvertently released an estimated three million tons of toxic wastewater into the Animas River.  In the last 150 years, large quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), chlorinated solvents, perchlorates, byproducts of old manufactured gas plants (MGPs), and other chemicals, oils, and wastes have been released into America’s waterways.  We at Taylor & Hammel closely follow and report on such toxic contamination incidents to highlight how historical research supports the toxic tort and environmental cases of our legal clientele involved in cleanup and remedial efforts.