March 02, 2021

Retrospective on drinking water litigation from Flint, Michigan

Samia R. Broadaway and Paulina Williams

The facts of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis are now well known: in April 2014, the city of Flint, facing serious financial trouble, was supervised by an emergency manager appointed by then-Governor Snyder. The emergency manager was tasked with implementing cost-saving measures. In one such cost-saving effort, the city switched its water supply from the decades-old source, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, to the Flint River. Without adequate treatment of that new source, the corrosive river water quickly dissolved lead-bearing pipe joints throughout the distribution system. Lead leached into the city’s drinking water until it registered at some residences maximum levels over 100 times greater than the federal action level (15 parts per billion (ppb)). K.J. Pieper et al., Evaluating Water Lead Levels During the Flint Water Crisis, Envtl. Sci. & Tech. 8124–8132 (2018). Another effect of the inadequately treated water was to cause the onset of Legionnaires’ disease, which resulted in at least 12 deaths and multiple injuries. Legionnaires’ disease is a severe, bacteria-caused pneumonia often associated with inadequately maintained water systems. Even after Flint resumed using Detroit’s municipal water supply in October 2015, the damage had been done, both to public health and to confidence in the city’s water system. Lead is a cumulative toxin, and dissolved infrastructure cannot repair itself. Now, over six years later, some Flint residents are beginning to drink from their faucets again. But others continue to rely on bottled water.

This article summarizes some of the litigation surrounding the Flint water crisis. Like the crisis itself, the litigation continues and continues to evolve.

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