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U.S. Supreme Court deals rare victory to Flint residents suing over the city's water crisis

The U.S. Supreme Court Justices

The United States Supreme Court has dealt a victoryto some Flint Michigan residents seeking damages for the city’s contaminated drinking water.

The court’s action last week clears a barrier residents faced trying to sue government officials.

But some Flint residents fear they’re still a long way from getting compensation.

Standing next to the Flint River, you can watch as the dingy brown water rolls over a former dam downtown, creating a frothy foam that floats downstream.

In 2014, state officials decided to use this murky water as Flint’s drinking water source. But the water wasimproperly treated, releasing lead and other contaminants into the Flint’s tap water.

Flint resident Margaret Wesley blames the drinking water switch for the death of her adult daughter Mary.

“They knew,” Margaret Wesley says, her voice cracking with emotion. “I’ll go to my grave believing they knew what was in that water…the bacteria.”

Wesley is one of more than 30,000 Flint residents who’ve filed lawsuits against the city and state regulators. They’re seeking compensation for medical expenses, property damage and in some cases deaths, tied to the Flint water crisis.

Lawyers for the government officials being sued had claimed they’re protected by something called “qualified immunity,” which is a legal doctrine shielding government officials.

But last week, the U.S. Supreme Court let a lower court ruling stand that government officials can not claim immunity in this case. 

“We hope that it’s going to provide justice, not only for the people of Flint but, for other people especially communities of color and impoverished areas, where they become the victims of environmental injustice,” says Michael Pitt, co-lead counsel on the class action lawsuit for Flint victims.  

But since the Supreme Court’s decision only directly affects the U.S. Sixth Circuit, it’s unclear if it would apply to other federal lawsuits.

Even so, the ruling is getting attention.

This past weekend, more than a hundred drinking water activists, some from as far away as Kenya and Guatemala, met in a century old church in Detroit.

To them, the Supreme Court’s decision was welcome news.

“This gives me so much hope,” says Anthony Diaz, co-founder of the Newark Water Coalition. His group is dealing with the New Jersey city’s issues over lead contaminated water.

He suspects some government officials have been less responsive, in part because they didn’t fear legal actions against them personally.

“But now they know that freedom to fall back on…it’s going to make them nervous. It’s going to make them scared,” says Diaz. “Now we can apply pressure to get the things we want.”

For Flint residents, seeking some form of resolution from the water crisis, civil claims now seem to be the best path.    

Initially, 15 state and city officials were indicted on criminal charges ranging from neglect of duty to involuntary manslaughter. But prosecutors cut deals with seven defendants. And last year, the Attorney General’s office dropped charges against the rest. 

It remains unclear if anyone will ever face trial for the Flint water crisis.

“The people in Flint, in terms of justice, holding people accountable and compensation…we are batting zero,” says Flint resident Claire McClinton.

Unless a settlement is reached, it’s likely a trial on the damage claims won’t take place for at least another year.   

Meanwhile, April marks six years since Flint’s source was switched. In the years since the crisis, Flint’s water qualityhas improved and is now comparable to other cities.    

But many here still don’t trust that the water flowing through their taps is safe to drink.  

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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