Fighting for Justice in Flint

Partnering with NRDC and ACLU, residents of this Michigan city took their local government to court in a battle for safe drinking water.

The following is a transcript of the video:

Melissa Mays, resident of Flint, Michigan: The first time we heard that they were thinking of switching to the Flint River, we laughed. We thought it was a joke. Because there's a ton of cars in there, shopping carts, and we knew that industry had dumped in the river for 100 years and didn't clean it up.

When they actually pushed the button, it was on TV, and we were shocked that we were actually going to be forced to drink from the Flint River.

About a month later, people were complaining about orange and brown water. You would watch the news, and they would say, Well, river water is a little bit harder to treat than lake water, and we've got it under control. It's just a bump in the road.

Pastor Allen Overton, Concerned Pastors for Social Action: When I really recognized that Flint has switched is one early morning that I heard on 10 or 12 News, that General Motors had begun to switch from the Flint River water back on to the Detroit water because it was corroding their products.

And I just knew, common sense told me that if it's messing up their automotive parts, it has to be a problem for consumption. So that's when I got up and got mobilized and got engaged to find out what was going on with this water.

This church was where we spearheaded a group called the Coalition for Clean Water, bringing together other community groups that were out working to fight this water crisis.

Dimple Chaudhary, senior attorney, NRDC: NRDC started to understand the magnitude of the crisis in Flint back in the summer of 2015.

The ACLU of Michigan started to suspect that there may be potential litigation related to the environmental issues, the safety of the drinking water.

They reached out to NRDC because they knew that we have expertise and a deep knowledge of safe drinking water laws and how to bring these types of environmental citizens' suits.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, pediatrician, Hurley Medical Center: Pediatricians know lead. We know what lead can do. Every agency tells us—from the CDC to the American Academy of Pediatrics—that there's no safe level of lead.

When I heard of the possibility that there was lead in the water, it was a call to action. We decided to look at the lead levels just in our clinics.

So the Hurley Children's Clinic sees the most Flint kids, and we compared lead levels before the water switch to lead levels after the water switch, and we did see this increase in the percentage of children with elevated lead levels. And we were absolutely heartbroken.

We had to share this information as soon as possible. So we decided to hold a press conference. To alert our families to stop using this water, to use bottled water, to use filters and to hopefully get the water source changed back to Detroit.

Right after we shared this information, my science was dismissed, the research was dismissed, the state came out publicly stating that I was wrong, that I was causing near hysteria. So, I shouldn't have been surprised, because for 18 months, the heroic people of Flint had been dismissed—the moms, the activists, the pastors, the journalists, the scientists.

Chaudhary: After we realized that there was data that could confirm that there were widespread elevated lead levels in Flint—so a real serious concern about toxic lead in people's water—we knew that the ultimate fix for a lead problem is to get the lead pipes out of the ground. So that was the central and primary goal of the case.

Sarah Tallman, attorney, NRDC: In our lawsuit, we brought claims against the city of Flint and state officials claiming that they violated the Safe Drinking Water Act in several ways.

The first major violation was called "a failure to optimize corrosion control treatment," which means the city and state failed to treat the drinking water appropriately to make sure that they were minimizing the amount of lead that was leaching from the pipes into drinking water.

And the second violation was that they failed to monitor tap water for lead appropriately. Because they failed to do the right kinds of testing, they failed to uncover a problem for months and months, which exacerbated the crisis.

Anjali Waikar, attorney, NRDC: After we filed our lawsuit, we started hearing a lot of concerns from the community about people not being able to access basic bottled water and filters that the city and state were providing.

Chaudhary: The state had set up some distribution points around the city, but it was very clear to us that that was inadequate.

Tallman: And the state really expected individual residents of Flint to have to go out and find water day in and day out every day for months and months. And that was frustrating and appalling and shocking, really.

Jared Knicley, attorney, NRDC: Flint is a very poor city; one in five households doesn't have access to a vehicle, and requiring residents to go carry multiple cases of water home a day—it's just extremely burdensome on anyone. Particularly if you have any sort of disability or if you don't have a car.

The same was true for filters. Every household in Flint was provided with a filter early on in the process, but they weren't taught how to install filters, they weren't taught how to maintain filters.

Chaudhary: What do you do when in a given moment, people don't have access to safe water? How can we, as attorneys, as advocates, try to help them? And so we started to think about how can we put in place kind of a temporary emergency solution? Something that could ensure that people had ready access to safe drinking water day to day until these larger issues, until they could be addressed.

Tallman: The case that we were trying to make was about how the lack of water was affecting people's everyday lives. And so we had to talk to people and get to know them and develop relationships with them so that they would be willing to share their story in a federal court, which is a scary thing and not an easy thing to do.

Waikar: Ten or twelve of us would come out into Flint over the course of several weekends. We went out in teams of two, literally walking down streets and knocking on doors, and identifying those people who are most in need.

Tallman: It was those stories and those experiences that were ultimately persuasive to the court.

Mays: So we wake up in the morning, and we go to brush our teeth; you have to use bottled water for that.

I have three teenage boys who have to use bottled water to wash their face or they break out.

Then you take your fast showers, and you move through your day making sure the kids have bottles of water to pack to take to school with them, making sure that we have enough bottled water for whatever I plan to cook that night. Over Thanksgiving, it took 58 bottles of water just to make Thanksgiving dinner.

We give bottled water to the dogs, the cat because otherwise, we don't know what would happen. Then at the end of the day, you better make sure you've gotten to the point-of-distribution site if you're going to run out of water.

The points-of-distribution centers are open noon to six, Monday through Saturday. My husband and I both work, so a lot of times it's one of us going on our lunch hour, or in between my husband's two jobs to go pick up water really quickly. Because by the time we get done with work, they're closed.

So you can go pick up 10, sometimes 14, cases depending on what they'll give you; each site is a little bit different.

Then you have to fill up the giant recycling bags and take them out, and you fill up a bag that holds 120 bottles awfully quickly in a family of five.

What I do is at night, I make sure that I've refreshed the bottles of water in the bathroom for the boys. The only thing we do now in our home now is we flush our toilets and we shower.

Pastor Overton: The churches have been a big part of this entire recovery process in this crisis. This community worked together to get the people the water, to get the people the filters. Go into homes; I can't even count the number of homes that I went into to install filters. We were in crisis mode. It was a real tough time.

You had people that had become very depressed because they felt they had failed their children. So you had parents who felt that they had neglected their children, no fault of their own, just a situation they had been placed into.

And now we're trying to heal and recover. Trust is a big issue in this community. Most folks won't even say they're from Flint. They'll say they're from somewhere else, because they don't want the stigmatism that their children have been poisoned.

Knicley: The first big moment in the case was when the judge denied the state and the city's motions to dismiss in the summer of 2016.

Chaudhary: The judge issued a ruling that was incredibly comprehensive and ruled for us on every single issue and said, No, there's enough here for this case to continue. This community has raised some really serious questions about the safety of their water that deserve to be heard.

And I think that was that moment when we felt like, OK, we have something here.

Knicley: And that set the stage for us moving forward, taking bottled water delivery and filter installation and maintenance.

Chaudhary: This order came requiring the city and state to make sure that people had safe water in the interim while the case was pending. The city and the state sought to overturn that order. By the end of December, it was clear that they were not going to be successful. Both our judge and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals had said, No, there's a real concern for public safety and for public health, and there needs to be more done.

At that point, the governor of Michigan requested that the parties be convened for a mediation, and the judge ordered that, and then we all sat down at a table to talk.

Knicley: Once we had a settlement that all the parties were agreed upon, we submitted it to the court for its consideration and approval.

Chaudhary: We went to the courthouse in Detroit. Our clients were there, lots of members from the community were there. I stood up in front of the judge and said, Here's what we've been working on. Here's what we're asking you to approve, and the judge accepted the settlement and entered it and it was an incredible moment.

Our clients were thrilled. They worked so hard for this result. They're such an inspiring community. We were just so happy and honored that we could help them with this.

Mays: Flint proved that even while poisoned, even while worried about surviving, that we're not just victims, we are fighters.

Tallman: The settlement agreement means that there's an enforceable commitment on the part of the city and state to replace the lead and galvanized steel pipes in the city within three years. And that the state will commit up to $97 million to make that happen.

In addition, the state is committing to make sure that every resident in Flint has a properly installed filter in the meantime so that they'll have safe water to drink while all this pipe removal is happening. The settlement also provides that the city and state will conduct robust tap water monitoring to make sure that lead levels in the city continue to go down over time.

Everybody should be walking out of here with a water-testing kit.

Mays: We're sitting in the courtroom and I'm sitting next to Pastor Overton and I was like, "Did we just win?" And he was like, "I think so." And we just sat there. Both of us just sat there like: Is this real? Did we actually just get the state to agree to replace pipes?

And then we just sat there in shock and then the attorneys turned around and everybody started hugging each other and it was just surreal. That all this work, the year and a half we'd been working on this lawsuit, that it had come to a settlement that was actually helpful for Flint residents.

Pastor Overton: And that was the no. 1 thing that we wanted to do was to get those service lines removed.

And we accomplished that. We're now working to get all the lead service lines removed from the city of Flint.

Chaudhary: There's still a lot to be done. We have this great agreement, but it has to be honored and enforced, and so we're going to be watching every step of the way to make sure that the city and state comply with their obligations, and if they don't, we'll be back in court.

Rhea Suh, president, NRDC: I hope that the story that comes out of Flint is a story about citizens taking matters into their own hands, utilizing partnerships with organizations like NRDC to seek the justice and the outcome that they deserve.

It was the activity of individual people, normal people standing up and advocating for their rights, for their families, for their communities.

Waikar: Flint is an example of how every community can hold government officials accountable, especially when they are simply not doing their job or disregarding the public health and disregarding, frankly, their moral and ethical obligations to ensure the safety of an entire community.

Knicley: For communities that find themselves in a situation I think this case provides a ray of hope. It shows that courts are a viable option for those communities to enforce their rights to safe drinking water even when it seems like everyone else is against them.

Mays: The state of Michigan didn't expect what happened, which is for all of us to stand up, become educated and become organized, and fight back.

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