Flint, Michigan, residents call on Biden to pay for decade-old federal failures in water crisis

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DETROIT — Ahead of Thursday's 10th anniversary of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, city residents call on President Joe Biden to acknowledge a federal role in the disaster and approve funds to settle a 7-year-old lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2020, the state of Michigan agreed to pay $600 million for its role in the water crisis, and the city of Flint settled for $20 million in the same massive lawsuit. But the EPA, which is charged with ensuring compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, has never acknowledged liability for its role, despite a paper trail showing its officials knew about dangerously inadequate water treatment from the Flint River months before residents were notified.

The water crisis began on April 25, 2014, when the city switched the source of its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, as a temporary cost-cutting measure, at the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager. As a result, lead leached from pipes and fixtures, causing a spike in blood lead levels, which is especially harmful to the brain development of children. Lead poisoning can also contribute to cardiovascular disease and other health ailments in adults.

Immediate complaints about the smell, color, and taste of Flint's drinking water had been largely ignored that year and were downplayed by government officials, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. It was not until January 2016 that state and federal officials declared a state of emergency.

Despite a legal settlement with the state and some other defendants, Flint residents have yet to see a dime from the $626.25 million settlement fund announced in 2020 and are not expected to be paid for several more months, due to delays in the claims administration process.

The Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, reported in March that while Flint residents continue to wait, lawyers in the case have received partial payments totaling $40.8 million, plus $7.1 million in expenses, and the court has authorized an additional $17 million in payments for claims administration expenses.

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'Disaster was preventable had the EPA simply done its job'

In February, the EPA asked U.S. District Judge Linda Parker in Detroit to dismiss a lawsuit brought against it by thousands of Flint residents, based on a type of governmental immunity, despite the fact Parker in 2019 rejected similar arguments from the federal agency.

"The disaster was preventable had the EPA simply done its job," Flint residents Jan Burgess, Rhonda Kelso and Melissa Mays, who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act, said in a Tuesday letter to Biden, who was vice president when the water crisis began.

The EPA "stood by and reinforced the state's false assurances to us that our drinking water was safe, despite knowing that it was a lie."

A White House spokeswoman, Sneha Choudhary, did not directly address the issue of past federal failings with respect to Flint, when asked for a response to the letter. But she said Biden secured $15 billion in funding for lead pipe replacement nationwide through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and $5 million for Flint through the Flint Registry, in the 2024 budget, to ensure "families in Flint have high quality health care, education, and proper nutrition as they recover from the crisis."

Biden "firmly believes no family should worry that water from their tap will harm their children," Choudhary said in an email.

Flint water crisis caused major water quality, health issues

Anyone who drank the city's tap water was exposed to lead. Following the city's water supply source switch, the Natural Resources Defense Council said complaints regarding "foul-smelling, discolored, and off-tasting water" escalated and some residents even reported skin rashes, hair loss, and itchy skin.

A state agency, then called the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, acknowledged a catastrophic error in not requiring the city to treat the raw water with corrosion control chemicals. A 2018 report by the EPA Office of Inspector General said the EPA "did not manage its drinking water oversight program in a way that facilitated effective oversight and timely intervention in Flint."

The EPA was almost immediately inundated with complaints and "by April 2015 the EPA was aware that the state lied to them in February 2015" when it said it was using corrosion control as part of its water treatment, according to pleadings in the case. But the EPA, which has a responsibility to notify the public of unsafe drinking water, took no enforcement action until January 2016.

In its February filing in the case before Parker, the EPA said the claims should be dismissed under a "discretionary function exception" to the Tort Claims Act. The agency argues it had discretion in how to respond when it learned in April 2015, that Flint was not using corrosion control, and its decision on how to proceed was subject to "policy analysis."

The EPA "faced difficult decisions regarding how best to reinstitute corrosion control quickly and effectively," the agency argued. In their response, the plaintiffs said the EPA had no discretion to violate the constitutional rights of Flint residents.

Cary McGehee, a Royal Oak attorney representing the plaintiffs, said Tuesday it is difficult to estimate how much the EPA should pay Flint residents to settle the claims. The case against the EPA includes claims for psychological trauma, emotional distress, and disruption to life that were not part of the settlement the state of Michigan made with Flint residents, she said.

"Your administration publicly expressed dismay and shock about what was going on in our city, and yet, to this date, the federal government is the only entity that refuses to take any responsibility for its failures," Burgess, Kelso and Mays said in the letter to Biden.

Contributing: Thao Nguyen, USA TODAY; Jessica Durando, USA TODAY Network

Contact Paul Egan at pegan@freepress.com or follow him on X, @paulegan4.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Flint water crisis: Residents urge Biden to pay for federal failures