Judge holds Flint in contempt for continued lead pipe replacement delays

Judge holds Flint in contempt for continued lead pipe replacement delays
March 14, 2024 Bridge Michigan

By Kelly House, Bridge Michigan

The Great Lakes News Collaborative includes Bridge Michigan; Circle of Blue; Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television; Michigan Public, Michigan’s NPR News Leader; and  who work together to bring audiences news and information about the impact of climate change, pollution, and aging infrastructure on the Great Lakes and drinking water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Find all the work HERE.

  • Flint was supposed to finish replacing residents’ lead service lines in 2020
  • After years of delays, a federal judge has held the city in contempt
  • Thirty pipe replacements remain, plus potentially thousands of homes awaiting repairs to damaged yards and sidewalks

A federal judge has found the city of Flint in contempt after years of delays in the effort to replace lead service lines at tens of thousands of homes.

As Bridge Michigan revealed last year, lead line replacement efforts in Flint were supposed to be done in 2020, but have dragged on. That has left many residents with cratered yards and broken sidewalks from previous pipe replacement.

In a Tuesday order granting advocacy groups’ motion for contempt, U.S. District Judge David M. Lawson said the city “has no good reason for its failures.”

The impact of the ruling is unclear: The judge did not impose any fines on the cash-strapped city, but left open the possibility that Flint may have to repay plaintiffs’ legal fees.

A spokesperson for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a plaintiff in the case, said the group is not sure whether it will seek repayment.

The ruling is the latest fallout from the city’s notorious lead crisis, in which decisions by a state-appointed emergency manager contributed to lead contamination in city drinking water.

The deadline to replace the pipes stemmed from a 2017 settlement with NRDC, Concerned Pastors for Social Action, Flint resident Melissa Mays and the ACLU of Michigan. The settlement requires the city to excavate service lines in about 31,500 homes, and replace those made of lead or galvanized steel. The city also needs to restore properties marred by excavation and maintain records of its work.

In February 2023, after years of delays, the judge gave the city five months to finish the $97 million lead line replacement effort. But the city blew through that deadline, too, prompting plaintiffs to seek sanctions. 

In a statement, Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Addie Rolnick applauded Lawson’s ruling.

“Residents are not asking the City of Flint to do the impossible,” Rolnick said. “They simply want officials to meet deadlines and finish the work the city already agreed to.”

Explaining their continued delays to the judge, city officials blamed bad weather and time spent preparing door hangers that would be used to contact residents whose properties may need work.
Lawson described those excuses as “unpersuasive.”

In a statement, Flint City Attorney William Kim said he is disappointed.

“We will review any NRDC requests for fees very closely and will seek to minimize any additional burden on the city’s taxpayers,” Kim said.

Kim said Flint has so far inspected and, if needed, replaced lead service lines at 29,485 addresses, with about 30 left to go. NRDC officials estimate nearly 2,000 homes still have property damage from past pipe replacement.

There is no new timetable for the work, but the Rev. Allen C. Overton, of Concerned Pastors for Social Action, said he hopes the court’s order will spur Flint to complete work by year’s end.

“It’s good that the court continues to hold the city of Flint accountable for the irresponsible behaviors that they continue to show,” Overton said. “But it’s sad that we’re still in this climate.”

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Featured image: Activists estimate up to 2,000 homes still need repairs after lead line replacement crews damaged their yards and sidewalks. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Mays)


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