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Evidence suggests consultant was aware of lead "problem" months before Flint water issues became public

Flint Water Plant, Flint, Michigan (file photo)
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Flint Water Plant, Flint, Michigan (file photo)

Jurors in a federal civil trial heard evidence Wednesday that a consultant was concerned about lead in Flint’s drinking water months before it became publicly known.

Two engineering firms, Veolia North America (VNA) and Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam (LAN) were hired as consultants on Flint’s water system. Both are being sued on behalf of four children exposed to Flint’s tainted tap water.

Wednesday, plaintiffs’ attorney Corey Stern introduced a February, 2015 email exchange between officials with Veolia North America and others which said the “city needs to be aware of this problem with lead." The email went on to say the city needs to operate the water system to minimize this “as much as possible.”

But on the witness stand, former Mayor Dayne Walling said he was not made aware of Veolia’s concerns. Walling testified a report produced by Veolia engineers on the city’s water issues did not mention lead. On Tuesday, Walling testified, while Flint was under an emergency manager there were things happening, that were not reaching his desk.

It was months later when tests by researchers from Virginia Tech University publicly revealed Flint’s lead problem.

The cause was water taken from the Flint River was being improperly treated. The river water damaged aging pipes, releasing lead and other contaminants into Flint’s drinking water. The city returned to Detroit’s water system in October, 2015, 18 months after the ill-fated switch to the Flint River.

The decision to turn off the tap from Detroit was made by an emergency manager appointed by former Gov. Rick Snyder to help the city of Flint fix its finances.

During Wednesday’s session, Veolia’s defense attorney repeatedly pointed to former Gov. Rick Snyder and other state officials as the ones making decisions on Flint water.

Defense attorneys want to quiz Snyder and four other former officials on the witness stand. But the former governor and the others are facing criminal charges in the water crisis and are fighting subpoenas to testify in the civil case.

U.S. District Judge Judith Levy has ruled Snyder and the others will have to testify and could be held in contempt if they try to invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The judge notes they did not take the Fifth when they took part in pre-trial depositions in 2020. They were indicted in early 2021.

The issue will likely soon end up before a federal appeals court.

Meanwhile, the civil trial continues in Ann Arbor.

Former Mayor Dayne Walling is scheduled to testify for a fourth day this week on Thursday. The trial is expected to take at least a few more months before it will be handed to the jury.

This is considered a bellwether trial. This is the first of potentially many civil trials related to the Flint water crisis. This trial may give attorneys a sense of how those trials may proceed.

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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