Flint, Michigan, upon the decision of its Emergency Manager, switched its water supply from the Detroit River to the Flint River in April 2014. Flint has many old, lead pipes, and in large part because corrosion controls were not used upon the switch, lead leached into the city’s water supply. After the switch, residents repeatedly complained about the taste and color of the water and shared concerns about potential negative health consequences, but response from any level of government was slow coming throughout 2014. In the absence of government action, private citizens intervened in 2015, testing both water and blood lead levels in Flint. In August of 2015, Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech released a report indicating the corrosiveness of Flint’s water was causing lead to leach into Flint’s water supply. A few weeks later, pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Medical Center in Flint published a report showing an increase in lead exposure among children exposed to Flint’s water. Finally, in October 2015, Flint switched back to the Detroit River; by this time, there was already significant damage to the health of Flint residents and to their water system infrastructure.
In 2016, as these events and their tragic consequences gained national media attention, they became known as the Flint water crisis. The Flint water crisis continues as multiple layers of government officials and community leaders are trying to determine how to fix Flint’s damaged water pipes and how to address short and long term health consequences. Investigations, lawsuits, and commentary are plentiful, each trying to ascertain which people and/or entities are responsible for these events.
This issue brief is designed to give an overview of the factual context and allegations surrounding the Flint water crisis and to provide an introduction to some of the major legal and policy challenges that surfaced during the crisis and its aftermath. In addition to helping a reader less familiar with the Flint water crisis gain a surface level understanding of what happened, the legal and policy challenges discussed in this brief may also apply to other communities facing lead contamination in water or other man-made environmental disasters.
Please note that this issue brief is by no means comprehensive and the Flint water crisis is still a rapidly developing situation.