DETROIT (CN) — With $722 million in administrative claims pending against the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 1,700 people from Flint, Michigan filed a federal class action against the United States on Monday after what they say is months of inaction.
Lead plaintiff Jan Burgess says the EPA “failed to follow several specific agency mandates and directives governing its conduct which resulted in injury.”
Among those mandates and directives are providing “advice and technical assistance to states and local providers” that did not comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act. Burgess claims that upon learning of the severity of Flint’s lead poisoning, the EPA was required to bring an emergency action but failed to do so until January 2016.
In the 37-page federal complaint, Burgess says she became increasingly concerned about the taste and smell of Flint’s tap water in the summer of 2014, and requested an investigation through the EPA’s Enforcement web page in October 2014.
Lead poisoning from old corroded pipes that carry tap water for Flint, pop. 102,000, has made world news for more than two years. The city is 63 percent nonwhite; 57 percent are black.
Flint switched its water source this year from Lake Huron via the Detroit water system to the Flint River. “Since this change, our drinking water has tripled in cost and the quality varies daily,” Burgess says in the complaint.
“Some days it smells like an over-chlorinated swimming pool; other days, like pond scum. It is often brown in color and frequently has visible particles floating in it. … Just this morning our local paper reports that General Motors Engine plant has shut off Flint River water to the plant due to the over-chlorination and the fears that the water will cause corrosion.”
Burgess says residents of Flint no longer trust their local government.
“There is reasonable suspicion that reports have been falsified. Some residents have had water tested privately and the results are not even close to those reported by the city,” the complaint states. “Calls to the city and state have resulted in no action whatsoever.”
After asking the EPA to investigate, in October 2014, Burgess says in the complaint, she received an email from EPA representative Jennifer Crooks, who tried to assuage her fears and said the water quality problems were temporary.
“The Flint River water is a different quality than the Lake Huron raw water, and requires additional treatment to ensure an acceptable quality drinking water,” Crooks wrote, according to the complaint. Using the abbreviation for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, she added: “MDEQ is aware of the multiple complaints from citizens and is working closely with the Flint Water Department to ensure the distribution system and the water treatment processes work more efficiently and more effectively.”
Burgess says she did not hear from the EPA again until April 2016, when she was contacted by investigators. She says an EPA agent told her then that more than 120 complaints about the water had not yet been addressed.
In January 2015, another Flint resident called the EPA to say “that she and her family members were becoming physically ill from exposure to the water coming from her tap,” according to the complaint.
The lawsuit then quotes a number of damning statements it attributes to a Feb.26 email from Crooks to other EPA officials and the MDEQ.
“Crooks noted that the iron contamination was so high that the testing instrumentation could not measure it. She went on to say:
“‘But, because the iron levels were so high [Michael Glasgow, Flint Utilities Administrator], suggested testing for lead and copper. WOW!!!! Did he find the LEAD! 104 ppb [parts per billion] She has 2 children under the age of 3. … Big worries here …
“‘I think lead is a good indication that other contaminants are also present in the tap water that obviously were not present in the compliance samples taken at the plant. …
“‘We also talked about Dr. Joan Rose from Michigan State being on the Flint Tech Advisory committee … would want to dive further into this … she and her family are also exhibiting the rashes when exposed to the water, and her daughter’s hair is falling out in clumps.’”
By September 2015, newspapers around the world were reporting a massive health crisis in Flint, particularly for children, as lead poisoning can cause developmental disabilities and mental retardation.
“The media reported that the highly corrosive Flint River water was causing lead contamination in Flint homes. The media reported that the corrosion control plan would be implemented in January 2016,” according to the complaint.
Yet on Sept. 9, 2015, EPA spokesman Peter Cassell “misleadingly” told ABC News “that the ‘lead monitoring shows Flint has not exceeded the lead action level,’” according to the complaint.
Burgess and the other residents seek damages for negligence, failure to take mandatory actions required by the Safe Water Drinking Act, including failure to issue an emergency order, failure to provide technical assistance, negligent failure to warn, and emotional and physical injuries, including “lead poisoning, dermatological disorders, loss of hair, gastrointestinal disorders, out of pocket economic losses … pain and suffering, emotional distress, deprivation of a quality of life … [and] property damage to real estate and personal property.”
The 1,703 claimants seek at least $722.4 million.
An EPA spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
Lead attorney for Burgess et al. is Michael Pitt, with Pitt, McGehee, Palmer & Rivers, of Royal Oak. Also representing the plaintiffs are Deborah LaBelle of Ann Arbor; William Goodman with Goodman & Hurwitz of Detroit; Trachelle Young of Flint; Teresa Bingman or Okemos; Shermane Sealey with RSB Law Firm of Farmington Hills; and Cynthia Lindsey, of Detroit.