The state of Michigan on Thursday challenged a federal court order demanding that officials deliver bottled water to Flint residents who can’t easily pick up their own from distribution sites around the city, calling the requirement “unnecessary” and saying it would require “a tremendous expenditure of taxpayer funds.”
The legal filing requests a stay to the order issued last week by U.S. District Judge David M. Lawson, who ruled that state and city officials must immediately begin delivering four cases of bottled water each week to qualified households, particularly those that don’t have a properly installed or maintained water filter. The state said it plans to appeal the order to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. The city of Flint was not a party to Thursday’s motion.
It has been more than a year since state officials acknowledged that Flint’s water was tainted with dangerous levels of lead, and more than two years since residents began complaining about problems with the water in the wake of a decision by a state-appointed emergency manager to switch the supply source to the Flint River to save money. Even now, residents cannot trust what flows from their taps.
“A safe water supply has always been critical to civilization,” Lawson wrote in his decision a week ago. “The Flint water crisis has in effect turned back the clock to a time when people traveled to central water sources to fill their buckets and carry the water home.”
But in its motion Thursday, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration argued that the vast majority of Flint homes have filters on their taps, and that bottled water and replacement filters are readily available at numerous distribution points around the city. In addition, the state said relief workers maintain a list of elderly or otherwise homebound residents who need regular deliveries, and that they would continue to provide “immediate relief” to anyone they can identify who is struggling to get access to clean water.
Finally, the state argued that having to deliver cases of water to a large number of Flint residents each week could undermine other relief efforts. “The response to Flint involves much more than providing bottled water and filters,” Thursday’s motion reads. “It includes, among other things, fruits and vegetables, food-bank support, and other nutrition assistance to Flint children; provision of mental health services; provision of school nurses; and lead-abatement programming.”
State officials said requiring door-to-door water delivery could cost an estimated $10.5 million a month and require 137 additional delivery trucks and numerous additional personnel. They argued it also would result in nearly 5 million more plastic bottles each week overwhelming the Flint recycling system and could slow the recovery of the water system by decreasing the amount of water flowing through pipes, which is necessary to flush out lead particles and recoat pipes with orthophosphate.
Advocacy groups behind the federal lawsuit that prompted the order were quick to criticize the state on Thursday, saying the state should have to ensure that every resident has access to clean water.
“Seeking to delay the federal court order that the state immediately fix Flint’s water crisis is an obvious insult to the people of Flint, whose tap water has been contaminated with lead for more than two years,” Henry Henderson, Midwest director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.
Pastor Allen Overton, of the group Concerned Pastors for Social Action, said the effort to delay the judge’s order represents an effort to continue to “disenfranchise” Flint residents.
“What happened to Gov. Snyder’s pledge that he would work to fix Flint’s drinking water crisis?” Overton said in a statement. “This action today inflicts more harm on a city that’s already hurting.”
Through a spokeswoman, Snyder disagreed.
“The judge’s order moves the efforts in Flint backward by requiring the state to refocus efforts on emergency delivery of bottled water at a time when independent and government water quality experts have said that filtered water is safe for all uses by all populations,” the governor’s spokeswoman, Anna Heaton, said in a statement. “The herculean effort required by the court order would be on the magnitude of a large-scale military operation.”
Heaton added that abiding by the judge’s order would “significantly impact the state’s ability to continue ongoing efforts for recovery, including lead service line replacement and the current on-demand water delivery to those who are homebound. It also could interfere with recent efforts by the city, state and local nonprofit organizations to ramp up efforts providing Flint residents with jobs on teams already assigned to visit homes throughout the city to ensure filters are being used and maintained properly.”
In addition to the door-to-door water delivery, Lawson last week ordered public officials to “provide Flint residents with clear and current information about lead contamination in the drinking water” that underscores the potential risks and the need to use and maintain properly installed filters. He said the notices and instructions must be distributed in numerous languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Hmong. He is requiring the state to file a status report on its efforts by Dec. 16.
But the state on Thursday argued that even the printing and mailing of such notices would cost “approximately $20,000 each instance,” and that “the available appropriations cannot simply be rerouted without putting existing relief efforts at risk.”
Michigan has been picking up the full tab for the distribution of bottled water and filters since the federal government’s emergency aid to Flint ended earlier this summer.