Yesterday evening, the Department of Health and Human Services designated Dr. Nicole Lurie, an agency assistant secretary, to lead the federal government’s response to the elevated lead levels allegedly found in the drinking water being provided by the City of Flint, Michigan, to its residents. This designation came on the heels of a meeting between Flint’s mayor and Valerie Jarrett in Washington, D.C. The federal government has elected to play a significant role in addressing this crisis, with President Obama signing an emergency declaration on Saturday which provided Flint with access to up to $5 million in federal funds. The crisis began in 2014 when Flint stopped getting water from Detroit and began obtaining its drinking water from the Flint River in an effort to lower costs.
The appointment of a federal “czar” to coordinate a federal response to contamination of a local drinking water system is somewhat unusual. However, it is likely that the political nature of this issue, coupled with the fact that U.S. EPA may have been aware as far back as April 2015 that Flint’s water supply was at risk for lead contamination, likely contributed to this decision. For those that watched the Democratic presidential debate on Sunday, the Flint water issues were discussed by the candidates, with blame not surprisingly being directed at Republican Governor Rick Snyder.
Although Flint has stopped obtaining water from the Flint River, the risk has not necessarily been alleviated due to the damage that the corrosive water likely caused the City’s water distribution system, including pipes leading to individual residences. As such, there is a continuing effort to provide residents with bottled water and water filters for their homes while a more long-term solution is investigated. Several class-action lawsuits have already been filed and more are likely as this crisis continues to evolve. In addition, multiple investigations have been launched by both the Michigan State’s Attorney and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan.
This was originally published in the Corporate Environmental Lawyer written by Steven M. Siros