Michigan’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that residents of the city of Flint, Michigan, can pursue public officials in a lawsuit (pdf) over the city’s 2014 to 2015 use of water from the Flint River that led to high levels of lead contamination among the city’s residents, including children.
The lawsuit was filed by Melissa Mays and other property owners and people in the Flint area, and targets former Governor of Michigan Rick Snyder, the State of Michigan, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), and its Department of Health and Human Services, as well as two former Flint emergency managers.
“The residents of Flint have suffered for six long years while the State has filed appeal, after appeal, after appeal, to delay justice,” said Weitz & Luxenberg attorney Paul Novak in a statement. “Today strikes another victory for Flint’s residents and hopefully the Supreme Court’s words make it clear that the people of Flint are entitled to justice.”
“Plaintiffs in this case raise some of the most disturbing allegations of malfeasance by government actors in Michigan’s history,” said Justice Richard Bernstein in the court’s decision. Bernstein said that the defendants had fought the plaintiffs repeatedly along the way, including through attempts to have the lawsuit dismissed on procedural grounds. The people of Flint had endured, he said, and would now have an opportunity to be heard.
“The judiciary should be the one governmental institution that hears their grievances and affords them the opportunity to at least proceed with their case,” Bernstein said.
The lawsuit alleges that in 2013, the former governor of Michigan worked with other officials and state bodies to approve a contract to develop an alternative source of water for Flint, a predominantly African-American city of around 95,000 located 70 miles northwest of Detroit. The lawsuit claims that the defendants knew the Flint River would be used as an interim water source, and that they knew of a 2011 study that had cautioned against the use of the river as a source of drinking water.
Complaints about the smell, taste, and color of the water soon arose, and a General Motors plant in Flint announced that it was discontinuing the use of Flint River water in case it would corrode its metal components.
The lawsuit alleges that the corrosive water leached lead out of water piping systems, resulting in elevated levels of the heavy metal in Flint residents’ drinking water.
According to the suit, “Plaintiffs alleged that during this time, state officials failed to take any significant remedial measures to address the growing health threat and instead continued to downplay the health risk, advising Flint water users that it was safe to drink the tap water while simultaneously arranging for state employees in Flint to drink water from water coolers installed in state buildings.”
Effects of Lead Exposure
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that exposure to high levels of lead can cause kidney and brain damage, infertility, miscarriages, and even death.
However, high concentrations of lead affect children more acutely than adults, with children in the womb affected particularly severely. According to the CDC, “Lead can damage a developing baby’s nervous system. Even low-level lead exposures in developing babies have been found to affect behavior and intelligence.”