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'They Made It Worse': Michigan Sues 2 Companies Over Flint Crisis

The Flint Water Plant water tower in Flint, Mich.
Carlos Osorio
The Flint Water Plant water tower in Flint, Mich.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette says his office has filed a civil lawsuit against two companies involved in Flint's lead-tainted water crisis. The damages could reach hundreds of millions of dollars, he says.

"The more I discover and decipher," Schuette says, "the angrier I become. ... People committed crimes, and a global company and a Texas company botched the job of providing safe drinking water."

Schuette says the lawsuit accuses Veolia, a France-based resource management group, of negligence, fraud and public nuisance "for its actions and failures to act responsibly, which contributed to the water in Flint being poisoned."

Texas-based firm Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc. (LAN) is accused of negligence and public nuisance. Leo A. Daly Co., the parent company of LAN, is named in the suit. LAN's Michigan-based affiliate and three Delaware-based affiliates of Veolia are also named.

"In Flint, Veolia and LAN were hired to do a job and failed miserably," Schuette tells reporters. "They failed miserably in their job — basically botched it, didn't stop the water in Flint from being poisoned. They made it worse, that's what they did."

The crisis in Flint started when the city switched to a new water source in 2014. As we have reported, "Water from that new source, the Flint River, was not adequately treated with corrosion controls and this caused lead from pipes to contaminate the water. The city switched back to its original source late last year." It was too late to reverse the damage to the pipes — which meant the children of Flint were "drinking from a lead straw," as Schuette says.

You can find a step-by-step look at how the crisis unfolded here.

Schuette describes the role that LAN played like this:

"LAN was hired by officials in Flint in 2011 to study and review the feasibility for using the Flint Water treatment plant for water supply for Flint residents and industrial users. In the summer of 2013, LAN was hired to operate and help operate the water treatment plant using Flint River. The switch from Lake Huron water to Flint River water occurred on April 25, 2014. ... LAN botched the job, failed to help operate the water treatment plant without any — let me repeat without any — corrosion control program. This meant that lead leached into the water that would go to your home."

Veolia was hired in February 2015, he says, amid reports of elevating lead levels in the water:

"Veolia was hired as Flint's water quality consultant, hired to fix the problems at the water treatment plant. Veolia hired an interim report on Feb. 18 of 2015 that completely misrepresented the quality of the Flint water. .. Veolia stated that the water, quote, was safe. Veolia also callously and fraudulently dismissed medical and health concerns by stating that quote, some people may be sensitive to any water."

He adds that in March 2015, Veolia recommended that an acid called ferric chloride be added to the water supply — which only served to exacerbate the corrosion of the pipes. "In other words, Veolia made a bad situation worse," he says.

This new lawsuit comes after state officials filed criminal charges against three people in April — two officials with the state Department of Environmental Quality and a water official from Flint. Schuette says that he is expecting to file further criminal charges "soon."

In an email to The Two-Way, a LAN spokesman says that Schuette "blatantly mischaracterized the role of LAN's service in Flint." He says LAN "had no responsibility for water quality," and that the company will "vigorously defend itself against these unfounded claims."

Veolia did not immediately respond to news of the lawsuit. Veolia is also involved in a Massachusetts lawsuit over more than ten million gallons of sewage spilled into wooded lands around the city of Plymouth.

Special Prosecutor Noah Hall says there has been a flood of lawsuits representing individuals in Flint. But he adds: "Unlike the individual plaintiffs, who can cover claims for their personal injury and the damage to their property, for the loss of their livelihood, the state of Michigan – and only the state of Michigan – can recover damages to the cost that the crisis has imposed, and continues to impose, on the state of Michigan."

Flint's recovery will require a state effort, he says. And any damages collected from this lawsuit are meant to "address really the kind of broader, more systematic public health implications of lead poisoning and what it does to the community."

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.