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Lawsuit Against Flint Water Engineers Ends in Mistrial

The water contamination crisis began in 2014, and residents are still fighting for justice.

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The Flint water plant tower in Flint, Michigan.
The Flint water plant tower in Flint, Michigan.
Photo: Carlos Osorio (AP)

A federal judge declared a mistrial this week after jurors could not reach a verdict over whether two engineering firms, which were supposed to work on alleviating water contamination in Flint, Michigan, hold responsibility for the crisis.

Four plaintiffs who were exposed to lead as children when Flint’s drinking water sources were switched in 2014 brought the lawsuit. They claimed that two engineering firms, Veolia Water North America Operating Services (VNA) and Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam (LAN), did not do enough to respond to the lead contamination in the city’s water supply, Detroit Free Press reported. They wanted the firms to be held accountable alongside the elected officials who decided to switch the city’s water source to the heavily polluted Flint River.

A jury in Ann Arbor, Michigan spent months hearing evidence in the case, CBS News reported. In closing statements, the attorneys for the four plaintiffs argued that the Veolia firm should be held 50% responsible for the lead contamination crisis and that LAN should be held 25% responsible. Lawyers for Veolia argued that the firm was hired in the middle of the crisis; LAN said that an engineer in its firm had recommended testing the Flint River’s water so that it could be treated for residential use. After deliberating for weeks, the jurors told the judge they could not come to a verdict.

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The crisis in Flint began in April 2014. City officials approved a plan to draw water for city residents from the Flint River, which has been a dumping ground for industrial sewage and chemicals for decades. The city had previously used water from Lake Huron near Detroit, which was treated and safe to drink and bathe in. City officials made the switch to save about $5 million, at the cost of the city’s public health, Michigan Live reported in 2015. Residents began to notice that the water coming out of their faucets smelled odd and that it was yellow or brown. Soon after, local doctors began to notice lead in children’s blood.

Exposure to lead has serious consequences for everyone, but children are especially at risk of harm. Lead damages the development of the brain and central nervous system, and long-term exposure can result in “intellectual disability and behavioral disorders,” according to the World Health Organization.

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Residents are still feeling the effects of exposure to the toxic water. In 2019, researchers tested the water coming out of Flint residents faucets and reported that it was finally clean. Lead levels were far below what strict water standards required them to be, but residents who were anxious after years of being lied to by politicians were still using bottled water, Politico reported.

Mari Copeny, otherwise known as Little Miss Flint, has been vocal about the crisis for years. She used her large online following to continue reminding the country about Flint’s ongoing struggles. In response to the news of the mistrial, she tweeted, “Oh look not a single person held accountable in the poisoning of an entire city AND the line replacement is still not complete.”

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The majority of the children affected by the crisis are Black and from low-income families. Children of color, particularly Black American children, are more likely to be exposed to lead in their lifetime compared to white children. The over-exposure to lead is part of a toxic legacy, decades in the making for Black communities, and other communities of color throughout the country.