An Uphill Battle, and Persistence, in Flint

These four NRDC lawyers would finish each other’s thoughts—at any odd hour of the day or night—in their quest to help victims of the city’s lead crisis.

NRDC attorneys (from left) Jared Knicley and Sarah Tallman with ACLU lawyers Bonsitu Kitaba and Michael Steinberg discussing the lead water pipe replacement process in Flint, May 2017

Credit: Angela Guyadeen

In February 2016, at the height of the Flint water crisis, Anjali Waikar found herself with a team of NRDC staff going from house to house, knocking on doors, and asking residents about the specific hardships they were facing.

“Some people didn’t talk; others lived in pretty challenging situations,” Waikar, a staff attorney on NRDC’s environmental justice team, remembers. One woman in her mid-60s said she walked a mile and a half with her son each way to pick up bottled water from a distribution center for her family—nearly every single day. For another woman with a broken faucet, simply talking about water made her sob. Yet others hadn’t even heard of the water crisis, despite its already receiving widespread national news coverage.

Waikar was with fellow NRDC and ACLU staffers in Flint as part of an effort to help get justice for the tens of thousands of people, including 9,000 children, exposed to the city’s poisoned water supply. The problems had begun in April 2014 after officials, looking to cut costs, switched the city’s drinking water supply from Detroit’s Lake Huron to the Flint River. Because they failed to have it treated properly, the highly corrosive water leached lead from Flint’s aging pipes, and the lead went directly into people’s drinking glasses.

Residents began noticing the effects right away—dark-colored, foul-tasting, bad-smelling water; skin rashes; hair loss—but it wasn’t until the following summer that government officials began to take the problem seriously. Investigations by the ACLU of Michigan uncovered widespread water issues, and at the group’s invitation, NRDC stepped in to help. The team came together quickly. “It was a crisis, so we were trying to respond accordingly,” says Dimple Chaudhary, who was NRDC’s lead counsel on the Flint case. Joining Waikar and Chaudhary were Sarah Tallman, a Chicago-based attorney, and Evan Feinauer, a Chicago-based legal fellow, both part of NRDC’s litigation team. Jared Knicley, an NRDC attorney in the Washington, D.C., office, rounded out the team several months later when the legal proceedings ramped up.

The lawyers worked seamlessly from the start, and Chaudhary was struck by her teammates’ energy, passion, and commitment to the work, evident from day one. “I would often feel guilty,” she says. “I’d say, ‘It’s Saturday night, you should be out having fun!’ Instead we’re passing sections of briefs back and forth to each other all night.”

Knicley also highlights the unique rapport that grew out of the group’s constant communication around their mission. “It was something I’ve never experienced before,” he says. “We really were finishing each other’s thoughts and would even wake up in the middle of the night with the same ideas about the case.”

Tallman and Knicley in Flint
Credit: Angela Guyadeen

Above all else, the team members were united in their devotion to the community they were serving. As Waikar, an extrovert who helped with much of the relationship-building in Flint early in the case, points out, “This is about them, not about us.”

In that spirit, they began by filing an emergency petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeking immediate help getting Flint residents safe drinking water. Then, in January 2016, NRDC—along with Concerned Pastors for Social Action, Flint resident Melissa Mays, and the ACLU of Michigan—filed a federal lawsuit seeking to require the city of Flint and the state of Michigan to replace the lead pipes and to follow federal regulations for treating and testing the water.

Melissa Mays (center) speaks at a town hall to discuss the settlement with (from left) NRDC attorneys Dimple Chaudhary and Sarah Tallman, NRDC Health program director Erik Olson, and Pastor Allen Overton.
Credit: Angela Guyadeen

In March, the team filed a preliminary injunction motion, supported by 1,200 pages of evidence and the resident testimonies NRDC had collected, asking the court to require delivery of bottled water to people’s homes. That was a long shot, Tallman admits, but in the end the court granted the request. “It was not fair just to expect people to go out and track down their own water, day in and day out,” she says.

The victory, though just one step in the legal battle, made an especially strong impact on Tallman, who had always wanted to practice public interest law―and whose passion, her teammates say, jump-started NRDC’s response to the case. “To know that we had at least a small part to play in making sure that happened has been empowering for me as a young attorney—to really see the impact that lawyering and this kind of advocacy can have.”

Meanwhile, the lawyers kept up their fight outside the courthouse, too. “This kind of case really requires multiple tools in the toolbox to litigate, and not just people who can write beautiful briefs at their desks,” says Waikar, who emphasizes the importance of building local trust. “It requires boots on the ground, especially when the relief you’re seeking has the potential to impact an entire community.” Ultimately, those front-stoop meetings held by the team served to get locals affected by the crisis into the courtroom themselves; many testified as witnesses at the preliminary injunction hearing or shared their stories in written declarations provided to the judge.

Waikar also cites the importance of addressing the immediate needs of the citizens of Flint, rather than just the long-term aims of the lawsuit. In one case, that meant accompanying a woman affected by the tainted water on a trip to get dentures. She adds that sensitivity is an especially important quality in lawyers. “It’s very easy to mess up relationships,” she says. “We’re coming in at a place of deficit to begin with, because already people don’t trust us, so the slightest misstep can really impact people.”

And as a legal team of mostly young women, the NRDC crew had to overcome ingrained prejudice on many fronts. “I think some on the other side underestimated us at first,” says Knicley. “But they didn’t make that mistake for very long. When Dimple and Sarah are in the room, it doesn’t matter if they’re surrounded by men, surrounded by women, surrounded by aliens, they’re going to run the show. Because this was their case. they knew the facts; they knew the law; they knew what was in our clients’ interest.”

In March 2017, just a little over a year after NRDC filed its suit, the city of Flint and state of Michigan agreed to replace the lead pipes and put an effective lead-monitoring system in place. As part of the $97 million settlement, authorities have three years to examine water service lines for at least 18,000 homes and replace those made of lead or galvanized steel.

Margie Kelly, a communications officer in NRDC’s Chicago office, remembers the feeling in the courtroom that came over her just before the settlement was announced. “Dimple’s up there running the show, and Sarah’s up there, and you look at the other side, the Michigan lawyers—and they’re the cream of the crop, the governor’s lawyers—and they’re all older guys, mostly white,” she recalls. “They’re just sitting there looking at their shoes because these two young women crushed them. There’s no way around it.”

But the team is careful not to take too much credit for the victory, citing the courage and determination of Flint’s residents and community activists, as well as collaboration with colleagues from ACLU and other parts of NRDC chipping in over the course of 14 months. “The four of us worked as one unit,” Knicley says. “But it was really the product of 20 or 30 people that came together and pitched in and made sure NRDC was doing the best we could for the people of Flint.”

Though the settlement represents a major step forward, Flint’s problems are far from over. Residents continue to receive bills for water they can’t drink unfiltered. There will be long-term impacts of the lead ingestion on public health, and concerns about other contaminants in the water remain. There’s still a lot of work to be done in Flint—not the least of which is ensuring that city and state officials follow through on their obligations to the people they serve. The situation remains deeply troubling, but, says Chaudhary, “that’s why you get into this work to begin with, so you do what you can to help people in those circumstances.”

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