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Flint Water Crisis Lawsuits Discussed at Michigan Law

By Lori Atherton
March 21, 2016

Shortly after the City of Flint changed its water source from Detroit to the Flint River, Pastor Allen Overton knew something wasn't right.

"The water was almost as brown as the Coke in your cup, and it smelled foul coming out of the tap," Overton told an audience at Michigan Law on March 17. But when the Flint native, who leads the Second Missionary Baptist Church in Monroe, Mich., learned that General Motors was allowed to switch back to Detroit water because the water from the Flint River was rusting its auto parts, he knew the situation was dire.

"That's when I became involved," said Overton, of Concerned Pastors for Social Action, a nonprofit organization that has been working to address the Flint water crisis since it started in 2014. "My thought process was, if the water's too hard and too corrosive for General Motors' parts, it has to be too hard and too corrosive for the human body."

Michael Steinberg, Legal Director of the ACLU of MichiganOverton said he repeatedly met with city officials in the early days of the crisis to express his concern that Flint's drinking water was unsafe, but each time was told not to worry. Even after it was discovered that lead was poisoning the water supply, Overton encountered resistance from city and state officials unwilling to take accountability for the problem.

"There's been a lot of cover-up, a lot of inappropriate behavior that has taken place throughout this whole process, from city officials and the emergency manager all the way up to the governor's office and the EPA," Overton said.

The move to source water from the Flint River, implemented under Flint's emergency manager in April 2014, was meant to be a cost-cutting effort to help the financially strapped city, but as Michael Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, notes, "This measure, designed by emergency managers with state officials to save $5 million, is going to cost billions of dollars to the city—not to mention the human cost, which is immeasurable."

Steinberg, a lecturer at Michigan Law, and his organization filed a federal lawsuit under the Safe Drinking Water Act in January, to ensure that city and state officials follow federal requirements for testing and treating water to control for lead and to order the prompt replacement of all lead water pipes at no cost to Flint residents. Overton's group, Concerned Pastors for Social Action, is part of the suit, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Flint resident Melissa Mays, who represents the group Water You Fighting For.

On March 14, the ACLU of Michigan also joined the Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice, the National Lawyers Guild, and other groups in filing an appeal in Phillips v. Snyder, a 2013 federal lawsuit challenging Michigan's controversial emergency manager law, Public Act 436, which Steinberg said is the "most radical" emergency manager law in the country.

The Flint water crisis, he said, "Is our Exhibit A of what's wrong with emergency management: It strips democracy and puts unaccountable people in power to run a city with no input from the people."

Steinberg has been the legal director of the ACLU of Michigan for 19 years and has worked on many cases of national importance, including cases on affirmative action, National Security Agency wiretapping, gay rights, and indigent defense. He said of all the cases he's worked on, "there has never been one like Flint, where you have the government poisoning an entire community and damaging a generation of kids through lead poisoning. It's extremely upsetting to see what happened there, and we are doing all we can to make sure this doesn't happen again."

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