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Flint, Michigan, held in contempt by federal judge for missing deadlines to replace lead pipes at center of water crisis

A federal judge has held the city of Flint, Michigan, in civil contempt for failing to meet deadlines imposed last year in a court order outlining steps to replace lead service lines that contributed to city residents being exposed to dangerously high levels of lead.

The ruling Tuesday comes nearly seven years after the city entered into a settlement agreement, which included a commitment to replace the lead lines to Flint residences by 2020 and to repair property damage to sidewalks, curbs and driveways caused by the work.

The city, however, has repeatedly failed to meet deadlines, prompting US Judge David Lawson to issue an order finding the city had not complied with a February 2023 order to enforce the agreement, citing evidence presented at a June court hearing and in subsequent filings.

“Based on the evidence, it is apparent that the City has failed to abide by the Court’s orders in several respects, and that it has no good reason for its failures,” Lawson wrote.

“The City has demonstrated belated compliance since the hearing, but even now, it has not actually replaced all of the lead service lines, which it originally promised to replace by March 28, 2020. The City is in civil contempt of the Court’s order.”

The judge’s order Tuesday allows the plaintiffs – including such groups as Concerned Pastors for Social Action, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Natural Resources Defense Council – to recover attorneys fees and other expenses stemming from the contempt proceedings.

The city of Flint is “committed to continuing to replace lead service lines above and beyond the terms” of the settlement “as long as funds are available,” William Kim, an attorney for the city, told CNN in an emailed statement.

“To date, the City of Flint has completed service line excavation, identification, and replacement at 29,485 addresses. 10,522 of those had lead service lines replaced,” the statement read, adding “Under the settlement agreement, there are approximately 30 addresses requiring lead service line excavation remaining.”

The order marks the latest development in Flint’s water crisis, perhaps the highest profile illustration of the United States’ struggle with aging and decaying water infrastructure. Issues with access to clean drinking water also disproportionately impact low-income US communities and those of color, according to the non-profit National Resources Defense Council.

The water saga in Flint, where an estimated 56% of residents are Black, traces back to a 2014 decision to switch the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the notoriously dirty Flint River to save money. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, however, failed to treat the corrosive water, which ate into the city’s iron and lead pipes, causing lead to leach into the drinking water.

Diana Wiley Washington, 58, works with her daughter in August 2021 to load bottled water in their car for delivery to local seniors as part of an outreach program through their church in Flint, Michigan. - Brittany Greeson/For The Washington Post/Getty Images
Diana Wiley Washington, 58, works with her daughter in August 2021 to load bottled water in their car for delivery to local seniors as part of an outreach program through their church in Flint, Michigan. - Brittany Greeson/For The Washington Post/Getty Images

Lead consumption can affect the heart, kidneys and nerves, and exposure in children can be particularly harmful, causing impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, hearing problems and delayed puberty, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

“We’ve waited almost 10 years for the water crisis nightmare to come to an end,” Allen C. Overton, a member of Concerned Pastors for Social Action, said in a statement.

“While we are encouraged by Judge Lawson’s ruling, the true outcome we’re seeking is for the City of Flint to succeed in finishing the lead pipe replacement program, including by finishing the overdue work of repairing damage to residents’ properties caused by lead service line replacements,” Overton said. “Court intervention has been the only way to hold the City to its promises, unfortunately.”

Almost 2,000 Flint homes have damaged property caused by the effort to replace the lead pipes, the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a news release, which said the delays “are continuing to cause difficulties and hardship” for residents.

Nationwide between 2016 and 2019, the rate of drinking water violations increased in communities of color, low-income communities and those with nonnative English speakers, as well as areas where people live in “crowded housing conditions” and those where people have “sparse access to transportation,” according to a 2020 analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“That means that water systems that serve the communities that are the most marginalized are more likely to be in violation of the law – and to stay in violation for longer periods of time,” the advocacy group said.

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