Flint water crisis: What's behind civil suit against three companies?

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette alleged Wednesday that two firms hired by city officials after the switch to the Flint River allowed the water crisis to "occur, continue and worsen."

Jake May/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP
Special Prosecutor Todd Flood speaks during a press conference in Flint, Mich, on Wednesday. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced a civil suit against two engineering firms, saying their negligence may have worsened Flint's water crisis.

On Feb. 18, 2015, city officials in Flint, Mich., tested the water of resident LeeAnne Walters, a test that would determine that her drinking water contained dangerously high levels of lead.

Yet on the same day, officials from Veolia North America, an engineering firm hired by the city to examine its water after it had switched to the Flint River, presented what Michigan Special Assistant Attorney General Noah Hall told reporters Wednesday was a “PowerPoint dog-and-pony show” that contained no reference to lead contamination.

Attorney General Bill Schuette sued Veolia and the Texas-based firm Lockwood Andrews and Newnam (LAN) on Wednesday, saying the firms hired by the city before and after it switched its water to the Flint River in April 2014 caused the water crisis to “occur, continue and worsen.”

“There’s no way that Veolia can rewrite history and say they didn’t know and had no reason to know about lead in people’s homes,” Mr. Hall, an environmental and water law expert who teaches at Wayne State University, said at a press conference Wednesday at the University of Michigan-Flint.

The suit follows criminal charges filed in April against two state officials and a city employee, a public apology by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, and a report by an independent panel appointed by the governor that called the crisis an “environmental injustice.”

But beyond the headlines, many residents remained angry, noting that officials had failed to address their concerns about the water’s taste and smell for months. The government only began taking action last fall, after Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards found dangerously high lead levels in the city’s water.

"I think Flint residents are wanting something to happen, somebody to be held accountable," Eric Scorsone, an associate professor at Michigan State University who specializes in city and state government finance issues, tells The Christian Science Monitor.

"It's part of this ongoing debate over what happened, who's responsible, and what standard these kind of firms are going to be held to in terms of their business operations, business decision-making, and does that have ramifications for other cities as they use outside consultants?" he says.

Previously, some residents were skeptical about the attorney general's investigation. "They make it seem like things are getting better. But they are not," Flint resident and community activist Desiree Duell told the Monitor's Jessica Mendoza in April, after the attorney general filed criminal charges against two officials from the state's Department of Environmental Quality and one city official.

Wednesday's suit also names LAN's parent company, Nebraska-based Leo A. Daly Co., saying the firms' “acts and omissions constitute professional negligence, fraud and public nuisance.”

The attorney general alleges that Veolia's report on the city's water in March 2015 made no reference to potential lead contamination. Instead, it said adding polyphosphates to the water could help remedy discoloration caused by “what primarily appears to be iron” from cast-iron pipes.

In a statement sent to the Monitor, Veolia said it was "disappointed" in the attorney general's "inaccurate and unwarranted allegations." 

"Veolia North America’s engagement with the city was wholly unrelated to the current lead issues. In fact, lead and copper testing were specifically not included in the company’s scope of work because the city represented that it was itself conducting required testing at the time of our analysis," the company added.

Previously observers and participants in the governor’s task force urged state officials to listen more closely to residents’ concerns.

“I think there has to be a lot more – I say this cautiously – proactive outreach to the Flint community and Flint leadership, to bring them on as true partners to the state,” Chris Kolb, a member of the governor’s task force and president of the Michigan Environmental Council told the Monitor in April. The council declined to comment on Wednesday, citing the ongoing legal case.

In the attorney general’s criminal case, Mike Glasgow, the city worker who tested the water in Ms. Walters’ house in February 2015, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and is cooperating with the investigation after other charges were dropped, the Detroit Free Press reports. 

Two Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees, Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby, face multiple felonies related to the crisis and are awaiting preliminary examinations. They are currently suspended without pay. 

When the Flint task force made 44 recommendations to address the water crisis in March, it didn’t discuss the role of Veolia and LAN in detail. But it did single out the efforts of Flint residents, officials who questioned government leadership, and reporters who revealed more about how the crisis unfolded.

“Without their courage and persistence, this crisis likely never would have been brought to light and mitigation efforts never begun,” the authors wrote.

While the civil investigation might not lead to a definite conclusion, Dr. Scorsone says he's curious to see how the courts view outside firms' responsibility for alerting officials about high lead levels in the city's water.

"Unfortunately [the water crisis is] very diffuse; there's a lot of different actors. Who's more culpable than others, who knows. So [the civil suit] may be good in one sense it’ll make people feel like something's happening," he says. "But unfortunately the other side of that is, it's never gonna to be clear-cut. This isn't the kind of case where there’s a smoking gun."

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