People gather in front of a church before participating in a national mile-long march to highlight the push for clean water in Flint February 19, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. The march was organized in part by Rev. Jesse Jackson. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Judge Says US Government Can Be Sued For Flint Water Crisis

April 19, 2019 - 11:40 am
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FLINT (WWJ/AP) - A judge says the federal government can be sued by Flint residents who blame the Environmental Protection Agency for waiting too long to intervene in the city's water crisis.

Federal Judge Linda Parker didn't determine whether EPA employees were negligent when Flint's water system became contaminated with lead in 2014 and 2015. The decision at this stage is more narrow, with the judge saying Thursday that the government isn't immune to a lawsuit.

Parker says EPA employees knew lead was leaching from old pipes because Flint's water wasn't being properly treated. She says the EPA also knew that Michigan regulators were misleading residents about the quality of the water.

The judge says the "lies went on for months."

The Associated Press sent an email to the EPA seeking comment Friday.

The city is slowly recovering: Water quality has improved, though residents remain wary of government. Officials are replacing lead pipes across the city, but it's taking longer than some prefer. An investigation has led to criminal charges against 15 current or former government officials.

Flint's tap water became contaminated in 2014 after officials switched from the Detroit system to the Flint River to save money, exposing many residents to lead, a potent neurotoxin. 

The switch to the Flint River was to be temporary, until the city could connect to a planned regional pipeline from Lake Huron. At that time, the impoverished majority-black city of nearly 100,000 residents was under control of an emergency financial manager appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

Residents complained the river water smelled and tasted bad and was causing skin rashes and other health problems. Local officials insisted it was safe.

After tests showed high levels of lead in a home in April 2015, Miguel Del Toral, a water regulations official in EPA's Chicago office, contacted officials with Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality. Del Toral also alerted superiors at EPA who decided not to make the information public, instead prodding the state agency to act behind the scenes. After a draft of Del Toral's report was leaked, EPA's regional administrator apologized to the city.

In emails later released through public-records requests, Del Toral voiced frustration over EPA's slow pace and described the agency as a "cesspool."

State officials finally acknowledged the lead contamination in September 2015 after doctors reported high levels of lead in Flint children's blood and Virginia Tech University researchers said their testing of Flint water samples found some with lead levels meeting EPA's definition of "toxic waste."

Snyder ordered the National Guard to distribute bottled water and filters, requested federal aid and eventually accepted the resignation of his top environmental official. Flint returned to the Detroit water system.

In January 2016, the EPA notified Michigan that its actions were inadequate and ordered stronger intervention. The agency's regional administrator in Chicago, Susan Hedman, resigned the next month. The preliminary inspector general's review later that year found the regional EPA office should have had "a greater sense of urgency" and was too deferential to the state.

Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy acknowledged during congressional hearings that her agency should have been more aggressive in testing the water and requiring changes but said the federal agency "couldn't get a straight answer" from Michigan officials about what was being done in Flint.

"We were strong-armed. We were misled," McCarthy said. "We were kept at arm's length. We could not do our jobs effectively."

Last year, a 74-page report from EPA's inspector general pointed to "oversight lapses" at the federal, state and local levels in the response to Flint's contaminated drinking water.

"While oversight authority is vital, its absence can contribute to a catastrophic situation," the inspector general, Arthur A. Elkin, said in a statement. His office has concluded the EPA was too slow and passive in responding to the Flint crisis.