More Legal Action in the Wake of Flint Water Crisis

We blogged about the Flint water crisis when class action lawsuits were filed earlier this year.

The crisis began when Flint switched its water supply from Lake Huron via Detroit’s water system to the Flint River in April 2014. Elevated levels of lead were found in its drinking water as a result, but it took months for the city to publicly acknowledge the problem and begin remediation efforts.

Source: NPR/Carlos Osorio AP

Source: NPR/Carlos Osorio AP

Last week, a $220 million damages claim against the U.S. EPA was filed by lawyers representing affected Flint residents. Criminal charges were also brought against two state officials and a city employee.

Flint is not the first public health incident related to lead contamination in our nation’s history. We’re all too familiar with the decades-long effort to rid older homes, apartment buildings, and public facilities of lead-based paint. The focus is now shifting to the aging infrastructure and pipes that leach lead and contaminate public drinking water.

We’ve learned that the crisis in Flint is not an anomaly. First, there was Sebring, Ohio, where residents were advised against drinking tap water and schools were shut down for several days. Then there was USA Today’s investigative reporting into lead contaminated water in hundreds of schools and daycares throughout the country. Even before Flint, there was controversy surrounding record levels of lead in Washington, D.C.’s tap water. These are just a few examples.

School districts, towns, and cities are now working to swap out old pipes for new ones and implement remediation plans to ensure that public drinking water is safe. Allocating costs and figuring out who bears – and shares – the burden of such work will be figured out through litigation.

This is where our services are normally employed. We regularly conduct historical research on behalf of attorneys for environmental and toxic tort litigation. We’re asked to identify potentially responsible parties (PRPs) and their involvement in such crises.

Moreover, we’ve been asked in the past to document the history of waste treatment and water treatment systems (including the extensive sewer and piping systems associated with them) in an effort to understand the development of these systems as well as any modifications, alterations, and expansions to them. Of particular interest is whether or not these systems have been regulated by federal or state agencies over time. Our findings are then used to determine each PRPs’ responsible stake in remediation efforts.

The legal cases related to the various lead contaminated water crises throughout the country are only just beginning.

Obvious PRPs have already been identified. Yesterday, both President Obama and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder admitted that the government failed residents of Flint. But at what level? The EPA is placing blame on state appointed officials, while the state blames the EPA. In Sebring, the Ohio EPA revoked the license of the water treatment plant operator but also fired some of its own staff members.

What about other PRPs? Additional ones such as companies that manufactured or installed piping may be identified in the future. Questions of PRPs will also be raised. As just one example, was there negligence of water or sewerage plant operators in maintaining these systems? These questions will only be answered as a result of due diligence research, which should include historical research as a critical component. Such an approach will provide a more comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand in Flint or any other area dealing with a lead contaminated water crisis.