The water coming out of household taps in Flint, Michigan is not safe to drink, said Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) attorneys at a March 29th University of Chicago Law School event, co-sponsored by EPIC. This is still the case after months of being under a state of emergency and years of being exposed to lead from corroded pipes. The attorneys, Evan Feinauer (UChicago Law ’15), Sarah Tallman and Anjali Waikar, discussed their active litigation efforts on behalf of the residents of Flint—40 percent of whom live below the poverty line—as part of a discussion moderated by EPIC expert and Abrams Environmental Law Clinic Director Mark Templeton.
Anjali Waikar kicked off the discussion with some background on the events that led up to the crisis. In
2014, the city of Flint switched its main water source from treated water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River. City officials had failed to apply corrosion inhibitors to the Flint River water, causing the pipes that brought the water to people’s homes to corrode, exposing the water to lead. Shortly after, Flint residents began to report incidents of hair falling out, rashes and vomiting. In the past two years, the percentage of children in Flint with elevated blood lead levels has doubled and in some cases tripled, NRDC notes.
Now that they are aware of the source, the residents of Flint are relying on bottled water—which is not delivered for free, leaving those who are disabled, elderly or poor at risk. There is also a heightened sense of distrust, not only of city and state officials, but also of the pipes that are carrying the water to their homes.
Several lawsuits have been filed against government officials. But what makes the NRDC lawsuit distinct is that it does not seek monetary damages for past actions, but instead, seeks the federal court to intervene in securing the people of Flint safe drinking water moving forward. This would include compelling the city and state officials to follow federal requirements for testing and treating water under the Safe Drinking Water Act to control for lead and ordering the prompt replacement of all lead water pipes at no cost to Flint residents.
“The community may never trust the water that’s coming out of their taps if it’s coming from the same pipes,” emphasized Tallman.
While a dire situation, the attorneys did stress one positive outcome: a public dialogue is now taking place about safe drinking water in the United States. This has led to actions in other cities. In Newark, New Jersey, for example, many public schools shut down unsafe drinking fountains.
“Getting the lead out of the ground,” said Tallman, is now priority, but doing so will not be easy.