A federal judge told state officials in Michigan on Friday that they must comply with an order to deliver bottled water to residences in Flint, Michigan, even as the officials challenged the delivery order in an appeals court. The ruling is the latest in a dispute between state officials, including Treasurer Nick Khouri, and advocacy groups over how to provide clean water to Flint residents as the city works to replace corroding pipes.
Flint has struggled with a public health crisis since 2014, when its water supply became contaminated with lead after the city began sourcing from the polluted Flint River on orders from emergency managers appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder's office. Residents of the low-income, majority-Black city were exposed to dangerous levels of lead and other contaminants for months on end as state regulators and health officials pointed fingers and downplayed concerns.
In response to a lawsuit filed by local activists and national advocates, US District Court Judge David Lawson in Detroit ruled last month that distribution centers set up by state officials to hand out bottled water and tap filters were not doing enough for residents. He ordered officials to deliver bottled water directly to homes or verify that residents have a working tap filter. Residents can opt out of delivery.
On November 17, Khouri and members of the Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board asked Lawson to put a stay on the delivery order while they appeal to a higher court, arguing that they were already doing enough to provide clean water to residents, and home delivery is "unreasonable" and too expensive.
Lawson rejected the defendants' motion to suspend the order, and state officials are reportedly working on a plan to comply as they prepare to challenge the order in an appeals court, according to reports.
"Flint residents continue to suffer irreparable harm from a lack of reliable access to safe drinking water," Lawson wrote in his most recent ruling. "This is more than a mere inconvenience; hunting for water has become a dominant activity in some residents' lives, causing anxiety, stress and financial hardship."
Dimple Chaudhary, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said Lawson's ruling affirmed that the people of Flint have a right to safe drinking water, just like everyone else.
"The court correctly recognized that the government created this crisis, and it's the government's responsibility to ensure that all people in Flint have access to safe drinking water," Chaudhary said.
Some good news for the troubled city: Last week researchers said water in 57 percent of the homes they tested did not have a detectable level of lead, but they urged residents to continue using water filters until the city's pipes are replaced.
Water pipes in Flint began to corrode and release lead because water from the Flint River was never treated with anti-corrosion chemicals. Despite their promising findings, the researchers said residents should continue using tap filters until old lead pipes are replaced with news ones. Federal aid for the project has been delayed by disputes over appropriations in Congress.
Anna Heaton, a spokeswoman for Gov. Snyder's office, said in a statement that filtered water is now safe to use and warned against "reverting to bottled water" because it would drain financial resources needed to fix the pipes. Heaton said state officials are working on a plan to comply with Lawson's delivery order but still face challenges with logistics and funding.
"The state continues to deliver bottled water and filters by request, just as we have been, and the distribution centers around the city remain fully operational for the pickup of water and filters," Heaton said. "Additionally, the state and city are working together to increase the number of door-to-door teams in the city to check filter installation and maintenance."