Lawsuits For Environmental Damage Rarely Win. Will Flint Water Crisis Set A Precedent?

January 19, 2021

A sapling on the forest floorIn 2014 government officials in Flint, Michigan, were hoping to cut costs by switching the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The water in the river was too corrosive and began eating away at the water system’s pipes. By 2015, the EPA had found dangerous levels of lead in the water being supplied to the people of Flint. As of today, twelve people have died, and more than eighty have become ill due to the water. The water supply was switched back over to Lake Huron in 2015, but the damage had already been done by then. The corroded pipes continued to leak lead into the water that was being distributed to people’s homes. The governor at the time, Rick Snyder, announced a public apology for the lack of accountability in 2016. However, this was after government officials repeatedly denied there was anything wrong with the water after citizens complained.

Seven years since the people of Flint were poisoned due to the corner-cutting officials in power, they are seeing the “accountability” former governor Snyder spoke of. The ex-governor and eight other officials are being charged for their part in the Flint water crisis that spanned from 2014 to 2019 but still has long-standing effects. Snyder was charged with two counts of willful neglect, and other charges range from more willful neglect to involuntary manslaughter. If Snyder is found guilty of the misdemeanor charges, he could face up to one year in prison or a $1000 fine. One must ask if this is enough for over five years of poisoned water that served over 96,000 citizens. Snyder’s lawyers seem to believe that even two misdemeanor charges are too much and say they’re “confident” that ex-governor Snyder will be “fully exonerated if this flimsy case goes to trial.” These officials were elected by the people with the trust that they would protect them. Yet, these officials did the exact opposite and caused long-term damage to the environment and its people and now they’re avoiding liability.

Even though the water in Flint now meets standards, lead poisoning has long-term effects. According to the EPA, lead poisoning in children can cause brain and nervous system development issues. In adults, it can cause cardiovascular and reproductive issues that may continue to affect Flint citizens for the rest of their lives. However, this is not the first time the people have tried to hold their government officials accountable for a failure to protect the environment. Unfortunately, these people in power often slip through without any repercussions. Since 1990, 1,300 legal actions have been filed due to climate change and other environmental accusations. The U.S. alone has had 1,023 of these cases. Furthermore, there have been 154 environmental cases against the Trump administration, none of which have succeeded.

One of these cases is still ongoing. A group of young people is trying to sue the administration because the action and inaction in light of climate change violate their “fundamental constitutional rights to freedom from deprivation of life, liberty, and property.” The group succeeded in the Federal District Court of Eugene; however, the next step, the appeals court, stopped them from proceeding onward for a time. The appeals court judge, Andrew Hurwitz, explained, “we conclude that such relief is beyond our constitutional power. Rather, the plaintiffs’ impressive case for redress must be presented to the political branches of government.” Although the group’s lawyer doesn’t plan to give up, the court’s decision still worried me. We all know how long movements in the political branches of government take, especially after this year. Scientists continue to remind us that we are running out of time, so is it safe to wait for these leaders to argue while others in power continue to make more detrimental mistakes?

There have been a few landmark cases around the world that have succeeded. In Pakistan, a case a few years ago established the right to challenge a lack of action on climate change on the basis of human rights. In the Netherlands, the Urgenda foundation case forced the adoption of stricter emissions reduction targets by the government. And in the U.K., Client Earth had repeatedly successfully sued the government due to the inaction over illegal air pollution levels. Now four non-profit organizations are hoping to succeed in a similar lawsuit in France. However, the French government argues that the failure to progress against climate change doesn’t only fall on its shoulders.

Although I believe this argument is inadequate, since France is part of the Paris agreement and has failed to meet the commitments it has made, it does make me pause. As we have seen with previous lawsuits in the U.S., environmental lawsuits don’t usually make it to the end because of a lack of specific legislation and precedent for the courts. Judge Hurwitz’s proposal to take the complaint to the political branches will take far too long. Political figures in power must be held accountable for the part they play in ensuring a better future. They deal with NGOs, private businesses, health organizations, and other countries. However, in some instances, this is no longer a matter that affects the citizens of one country. Must we take the political leader to the International Court of Justice held by the U.N. to see progress? This may have to be the way in order to set enough of a precedent to keep political leaders accountable for their actions as we move closer to the point of no turning back with climate change.

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Photo: Matthew Smith on Unsplash

Iga is a freelance writer based in Colorado, but originally from Poland. She follows the vegan, sustainability and zero-waste movements while trying to live a practical lifestyle! When she’s not writing she likes to practice yoga, read, play with her dogs and just be outside in nature. You can find more of her work at her website


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