Flint Trial Takeaways
Crisis was caused by government officials whose decisions VNA was powerless to undo
The Bellwether trial, Walters et al. vs. Flint et. al, is the first time the story of the Flint Water Crisis has been told in a courtroom. This week, the jury will enter deliberations to deliver a verdict in the case.
As the evidence in trial has shown, the Flint Water Crisis was a massive failure of government at every level, tracing all the way back to Governor Snyder and his direct reports. The crisis was already in full effect by the time Veolia North America (VNA) arrived in Flint in February 2015 – ten months after the City switched water sources – and VNA had no role in causing, prolonging, or worsening the crisis.
VNA was hired to conduct a one-week analysis of operations at the Flint Water Treatment Plant (FWTP) and to develop a report on their findings and recommendations. VNA made sound recommendations based on all the information that was made available to them. However, tragically for the people of Flint, City officials withheld critical information about lead in Flint’s water and then ignored all but one of VNA’s recommendations in an attempt to save money over the health and well-being of Flint residents.
Responsibility for the Flint Water Crisis rests squarely on the shoulders of government officials who have, one-by-one, sat on the witness stand and plead the Fifth Amendment. Government officials who have invoked the Fifth Amendment over the course of the trial include former Governor Rick Snyder, former Flint Emergency Managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, former Flint Director of Public Works Howard Croft, and former Director of the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Nancy Peeler.
Incidentally, as this trial was proceeding, the Michigan Supreme Court invalidated criminal charges against these government officials. More than eight years since the crisis began, not a single official in charge has been brought to justice and held responsible for their dangerous and reckless actions – and inaction.
The lawyers representing the plaintiffs in this case are the same lawyers who won a record settlement from the State of Michigan on behalf of the people of Flint, and then promptly announced that they would take over $200 million (one third of the total settlement) for themselves. This context is critical to understanding how this case came to be.
Independent third-party experts have testified that VNA fulfilled its professional responsibilities in Flint. Moreover, medical experts have testified that none of the four plaintiffs show any evidence of the injuries their lawyers claim. They each exhibit age-appropriate behavior, are thriving in school, and there is every reason to expect they will lead full, complete, and productive lives.
Facts of the Case
- The Flint Water Crisis was a massive failure of government, from the politicians at the very top of state government, including Governor Snyder himself and members of his senior staff, to the bureaucrats on the ground in Flint.
- The Flint Water Crisis was caused by a small group of government officials who made the catastrophic decision to use the Flint River as a temporary water source without proper treatment.
- The crisis was prolonged by government officials who knew there were problems with the water but lied, covered up their mistakes, deflected blame, and refused to take action.
- VNA was hired in February 2015 – ten months into the crisis – to conduct a limited, one-week analysis of operations at the Flint Water Treatment Plant. They were specifically asked to address issues relating to a cancer-causing chemical known as TTHM.
- VNA did not make the decision to use the Flint River as an interim water source, did not operate the plant, and had no power or ability to do anything except make recommendations based off the information they were given.
- VNA requested all relevant lead testing data be provided to them for consideration in their analysis of plant operations. All the data the City provided showed the water to be in compliance with the Lead and Copper rule.
- VNA had no way to know that while they were doing their analysis at the Flint Water Treatment Plant, Flint officials discovered exceptionally high levels of lead in the drinking water of a Flint resident – seven times the legal limit – yet failed to share this information with VNA’s engineers.
- Despite being hamstrung by bad information provided by the City, VNA made a series of expert recommendations, which had they been followed, would have addressed Flint’s water issues.
- While the people of Flint endured an incomprehensible crisis, there is no evidence that these four plaintiffs are suffering from injuries caused by lead in their water. VNA fulfilled its professional duties in Flint and did not cause any injury to the four plaintiffs.
- This lawsuit is a cynical attempt by trial attorneys to find a corporate scapegoat where none exists. The plaintiffs’ lawyers have already skimmed hundreds of millions of dollars from Flint victims in their last settlement. This case is nothing more than an attempt for them to profit even further from the Flint Water Crisis, off the backs of the people of Flint – all while the government officials responsible face zero consequences for their actions.
The Government’s Responsibility for the Flint Water Crisis
- Elected and government officials, including former Governor Snyder himself, caused the Flint Water Crisis when they decided to switch the city’s water supply to the Flint River from the Detroit Water & Sewage Department (DWSD) to save money – even when the treatment plant was not ready.
- Ahead of the switch, plant staff warned these officials that the plant was under-staffed and ill-equipped to treat the water from the Flint River. These warnings were ignored, and no steps were taken to prepare for the switch, such as instituting corrosion control to treat the corrosive river water.
- Within months, their failure to institute even the most basic standards for water treatment led to a series of boil advisories, a TTHM violation, and hundreds of citizen complaints about the disgusting taste, color, and smell of the water.
- Even as evidence of bacterial contamination and lead mounted, these officials refused to return to Detroit Water because they believed it to be cost prohibitive. For nearly a year and a half, the people with the power to fix the problem did nothing. Instead, they lied, covered up their mistakes and looked for others to blame.
- On February 24, 2015 – while VNA was conducting its analysis at the plant – the City of Flint learned of test results at Ms. LeeAnne Walters’ home that showed lead levels seven times the legal limit. Government officials hid these results from the public and VNA.
- Even though he was aware of the scale of the problem for months, Governor Snyder did not intervene to demand Flint return to Detroit Water until October 2015 – nearly 18 months after the Flint Water Crisis began.
- Rather than testify at trial to explain how and why they allowed the children of Flint to be poisoned by their own water, Governor Snyder and other government officials pled the Fifth – using the justice system to shield themselves from accountability.
- Meanwhile, Michigan taxpayers have paid more than $27 million in legal fees related to the Flint Water Crisis, including millions for Governor Snyder’s personal defense.
VNA’s Role in Flint
- VNA did not arrive in Flint until 10 months after the City switched water sources. They were hired to do a one-week assessment of the water quality, primarily focused on addressing the presence of TTHMs in the water.
- VNA properly identified the core issues affecting Flint’s water quality and made a series of important recommendations that would have helped a great deal with Flint’s water issues. Independent, third-party experts have testified that VNA’s recommendations were appropriate given the information they had at the time.
- Government officials hid from VNA and the public the high lead test results at Ms. LeeAnne Walters’ home. The City only provided VNA with data that showed the water was in compliance with State and Federal regulations on lead.
- VNA had no reason to suspect that the City had provided incomplete lead testing data to them, and they had no ability to do anything except make their recommendations based on their observations at the plant and the information provided by the City.
- Even though they were not told about high lead test results, VNA’s engineers understood that the water was corrosive and that lead could be a problem in the future, so they warned the City about the issue and recommended instituting corrosion control.
- The City of Flint ignored all but one of VNA’s recommendations, as well as their follow-up offer to help with the implementation of them.
- VNA went to Flint to help the City solve its water quality issues and deliver safe drinking water to the people of Flint. The crisis was in full swing by the time they arrived, and it would continue to go unaddressed for nearly eight months after VNA delivered its recommendations.
The Plaintiffs in this Case
- The evidence at trial has shown that although it is undisputed that the people of Flint suffered unspeakable tragedy as a result of the Flint Water Crisis, lead contamination in drinking water was very limited.
- EPA scientists and other third-party experts have done rigorous analyses and arrived at the same conclusion as VNA: there was no lead in the water being distributed from the Flint Water Treatment Plant, where VNA conducted its work. Contamination occurred when the poorly treated, corrosive water dislodged pipe scale on lead service lines.
- The FAST START program determined that just 16 percent of the homes in Flint had lead service lines and that any lead exposure that occurred was almost certainly limited to those homes.
- There is no evidence that any of the plaintiffs consumed water from a home with a lead service line or frequented places with lead service lines.
- None of the plaintiffs has ever had an elevated blood lead level, which is the gold standard for measuring lead exposure in children. The bone scans used by the plaintiffs’ lawyers meanwhile, have no clinical significance, have not been approved for use on humans, and are not a reliable way to measure lead exposure.
- None of the plaintiffs appear to be suffering any kind of brain injury that causes cognitive or behavioral impairments. Independent medical experts have testified that all four plaintiffs are doing well in school, progressing normally for their ages, and expected to live full and successful lives.