Fighting the Tide of Watered Down Justice

Nearly three years after winning a $97 million legal settlement that required the city of Flint to replace its lead water service lines, NRDC is still on the ground holding officials accountable, and using similar tactics as we demand clean water for the residents of Newark.

Eric Olson, NRDC’s senior Director of Health & Food, speaking with reporters in Newark, New Jersey, before a federal court hearing seeking an emergency order to force Newark city officials to provide safe drinking water to residents, August 15, 2019

Credit: Dean Freeman for NRDC

National news coverage of the Flint water crisis dwindled not long after the March 2017 settlement of the federal lawsuit brought by NRDC, Concerned Pastors for Social Action, Flint resident Melissa Mays, and the ACLU of Michigan. But it has remained top-of-mind for the NRDC lawyers, who are working to make sure the city of Flint and Michigan state officials uphold their legal obligation to find and fund the replacement of Flint’s lead and galvanized steel pipes.

“People think once you win a case, it’s over,” says Margie Kelly, a strategic communications manager based in NRDC’s Chicago office. “But that’s not the situation in Flint, where we have been fighting to make sure the lead lines really do come out of the ground—in a way that’s accountable to the people there. It really goes to show the tenacity of our lawyers.”

Senior attorney Dimple Chaudhary, who was lead counsel on the case, knew from the start that the $97 million replacement program would require steady oversight, especially given Flint’s lack of resources. “We’ve worked to make sure we could track what the city is doing, what the state is doing—and what they aren't doing,” she says.

Dissatisfied with the progress on the ground, NRDC went back to court in 2018 to press the city to improve its techniques for finding lead service lines. By February 2019, its officials agreed to begin using a data-driven approach to the work and to produce monthly reports on their results. Meanwhile, in the subsequent months, Chaudhary and her colleagues, along with local community groups, launched a public outreach campaign aiming to ensure that every resident knew their rights to have their pipes replaced before the end of the city’s pipe replacement program.

The shift worked: So far, the city of Flint reports that it has investigated more than 24,000 of its 28,000 lines and replaced about 9,000 of them. And that’s a number that a dedicated group of community coordinators are helping to boost.

NRDC senior attorney Dimple Chaudhary, attorney Sarah Tallman (center), and resident and plaintiff Melissa Mays (right) speaking with residents at a town hall meeting to discuss the Flint water crisis and NRDC's lawsuit in Flint, Michigan, 2017
Credit: NRDC

Brandon Smith and Samiyyah El-Amin are outreach contractors who have worked with NRDC to contact residents who either declined or didn’t respond to the offer to have their water pipes replaced. On top of their full-time jobs as outreach workers for the Flint-based Genesee Health System, the pair have been going door to door across the city explaining the benefits of new pipes, answering questions, and seeking residents’ permission for replacement.

“Most people have been very receptive to us, especially with us being from Flint,” Smith says, noting that the most common reason people decline replacement is because they don’t want their yards torn up. But residents express concerns that go well beyond their lawns, too. “There’s a lot of mistrust out here because of people with higher power saying the water was okay,” Smith says. “So people also really like being able to vent to us. We don’t rush them and we listen to their problems.”

The work is rewarding, El-Amin notes. “They appreciate the fact that we’re actually coming out and knocking on their doors and making sure that things are getting done,” she says. She adds that there is some crossover with their day jobs at Genesee, where they are part of a program created in the wake of the water crisis to check in on people and provide information on resources related to mental health and other care.

Waldorf and Sons crew members working to replace a lead service line at a home on Barrie Avenue in Flint, April 23, 2018
Credit: Brittany Greeson for NRDC

The progress of the pipe replacement program has been exciting, Chaudhary says, but agrees that “there's so much more that needs to be done in Flint to make the city whole.” Among other problems, this includes medical conditions and property damage that resulted from the water crisis. “There’s a concern that Flint will be forgotten—and then, who will do that work?” she asks. While addressing some issues of concern for residents may be outside of NRDC’s areas of expertise, Chaudhary says, maintaining relationships in the community—including with Smith and El-Amin—will ensure that NRDC can stay engaged as the recovery continues.

The ongoing work in Flint has been an important model for NRDC’s involvement in other cities grappling with lead in their drinking water. In Newark, New Jersey, where lead contamination also remains a serious problem, and where NRDC and the Newark Education Workers Caucus filed a lawsuit in 2018, the push to demand accountability from officials continues. While Newark has shifted its stance from denial to grudging acknowledgment of the issue, it is still not providing filters or critical instruction on the proper installation, use, and maintenance of filters to all affected residents.

Credit: Dean Freeman for NRDC

“When my family and I first heard about the recent lead problems in our drinking water, we were terrified,” Felicia Alston-Singleton, a public housing resident in Newark’s West Ward, and an NRDC member, said in a court declaration. “I’ve had a really hard time getting any information about my own home’s water. I worry that the city will only tell my landlord if there is a problem and that no one will tell me. I’m terrified that we’re all being exposed and don’t know it.”

Advocates have heard stories like Alston-Singleton’s all too often. A September 2019 report called Watered Down Justice that NRDC coauthored with the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform and Coming Clean found that ongoing water contamination in majority-Black cities like Flint and Newark could be related to a history of community disinvestment, residential segregation, and discrimination. The research team analyzed EPA data from 2016 to 2019. They noted that drinking water systems in violation of the law for the entire study period were 40 percent more likely to be in places with higher percentages of populations that were people of color. And even when actions were taken to compel repairs, it took longer for water systems in places with more communities of color to come back into compliance.

“One of the hardest takeaways from this work is that people can have brand-new pipes and still never trust that the water is safe,” Chaudhary says. “That’s the damage and the lasting lesson of Flint. In Newark, we have to get this right—and quickly. It’s not just about fixing the water. It’s also about restoring people’s faith that the government is looking out for them.”

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