Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022
There is poison in the water. The Flint water crisis has ravaged the city of Flint, Michigan, permanently altering how many in the community see the role of government.
On August 20th, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced a $600 million settlement between several state actors and victims of the Flint water crisis. Finally, six years after exposing residents to dangerous levels of lead in the water, the residents of Flint will receive their duly needed compensation. Unfortunately, it may be too little, too late for Flint, and there is little to prevent the crisis from repeating itself elsewhere without deliberate action.
In what was believed to be a cost-saving measure, the City of Flint, led by Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, switched from purchasing its water from the City of Detroit, planned to join the Karegnondi Water Authority and build a pipeline to Lake Huron. While Flint would need to start treating its own water, the city would save an estimated $200 million over 25 years by making the switch. However, while the pipeline was being built, the city connected to the Flint River in April 2014. Residents quickly realized a calamity was unfolding before their eyes.
During this time, Flint was no longer treating its water for corrosion and was in violation of EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule (“LCR”). Instead, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (now known as EGLE), adopted the “wait and see” method to study how to treat the water. Like most major cities in the United States, Flint still has lead service lines through the city. Experts found that “[w]ithout treatment, the protective coating on the inside of the pipes that built up over the years from Detroit’s water likely disappeared. And that’s what caused lead levels to spike in many homes in Flint.” It took the EPA until June 2015 to openly warn the public in a memo about “High Lead Levels in Flint.”
Lead as a major health risk
Exposure to lead has “been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.” Complications due to lead and legionella contamination are often worsened when not immediately treated. Thousands in Flint will feel the effects of this disaster for the rest of their lives.
Under EPA’s LCR, if lead reaches a level of 15 parts per billion (ppb), the local government must take specific corrosion treatment efforts, notify all residents in the area and increase the pace of replacing copper and lead service lines. While the federal government set the threshold, “there is no safe level of exposure” to lead.
For that reason, groups such as the NRDC argue the EPA’s LCR is not going far enough to protect communities and urges regulators to tighten restrictions. Rather than the current 14 years to replace all lead service lines, the new revisions extend the deadline to 33 years. State regulators are also not doing enough. Even Michigan, which updated its LCR in 2018, will not replace its lead service lines until 2041. While lowering its lead action level to 12 ppb, this will not take effect until 2025. The NRDC recommends a lead action level of 5 ppb.
Recipients of the $600 million settlement include “[a]ll owners and renters of residential property in Flint who received Flint water between April 25, 2014 and July 31, 2016.” The funds will be divided among four groups, the largest being “Minor Children Settlement Categories” who will receive approximately 79.5% of the fund. Full details of the settlementagreement are expected by October. The state of Michigan has already spent over $409 million to deal with the crisis.
Where’s and what’s next?
Flint is only one example of the massive lead exposure occurring across the United States and why local regulators cannot look to cut corners. Over 18 million Americans were exposed to lead in their drinking water in 2015. Exposure often comes from the over 10 million lead service lines still in use across the country. In Newark, New Jersey, the city that reported a level of 47.8 ppb in December 2018, one home found lead as high as 953 ppb. Today, Chicago has an EPA lead average action level of 19.5 ppb.
While replacing these lines will be costly, the Flint water crisis shows why regulators must strengthen their efforts. In Chicago, it may cost as much as $4.5 billion to replace the estimated 300,000 to 500,000 lead service lines. This cost is surely worth the economic and human toll Flint has been forced to face.