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Fed Judge finds City of Flint in contempt, citing Scripps News probe

A court order and a Scripps News investigation found city failures in the aftermath of a water crisis that poisoned Flint children.
Fed Judge finds City of Flint in contempt, citing Scripps News probe
Posted at 6:03 PM, Mar 13, 2024

Nearly a decade after one of this nation’s largest public health scandals was set into motion, a federal judge has cited a Scripps News investigation in his ruling to hold the City of Flint in contempt of court. The court order stems from the city’s handling of a water crisis that poisoned hundreds and perhaps thousands of Flint’s children.

The 2023 Scripps News investigation found many residents still waiting for the city to remove and replace the corroded pipes that have been leaching lead into the city’s water supply. 

It’s a project the city was court-ordered to finish years ago, but Scripps News reported residents in Flint were still being advised by the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Michigan nine years after the crisis began not to drink the tap water without getting special filters installed — until the city finishes the job.  

That reporting was cited in U.S. District Court Judge David Lawson’s court order, as evidence that “The City’s violations have caused difficulties and, in some cases, hardship to Flint residents, many of whom have waited years for excavations and repairs.” 

A Scripps News analysis of court documents and city progress reports had shown that as of March 2023, more than a thousand residents may have still needed their drinking water pipes inspected for lead. The investigation also found that since Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley took office in 2019, work to remove lead pipes across the city's water system had slowed to a crawl.  

This week’s ruling comes nine months after the court was asked to hold the City of Flint and Mayor Neeley in contempt. In June 2023, a month after the Scripps News investigation was released, The American Civil Liberties Union and the Natural Resources Defense Council cited our investigation in court filings as evidence the city and its mayor failed to comply with deadlines to remove hazards that can leach lead into the city's drinking water. 

SEE MORE: Records missing, phones out: Flint water crisis not over

In Judge Lawson’s order this week, he wrote “The City of Flint continues to miss deadlines for completing the water service line replacement work it promised to do when it entered into a Settlement Agreement on March 28, 2017. Those original deadlines have been extended several times ... The City has not even attempted to demonstrate that it ‘took all reasonable steps within [its] power to comply with’ the court’s deadline.” 

The judge also cited, in part, comments Mayor Neeley made to Scripps News as evidence the mayor had “taken personal responsibility” for missed deadlines. "Deadlines were set and deadlines were missed, I admit to that," Neeley told Scripps News last April. "Some could be contributed to me and some could be contributed to other pieces." 

The judge ultimately decided not to hold Mayor Neeley in contempt, writing that there is a “heavy burden of proof” to do so. Neeley was not a named party to the original 2016 lawsuit. 

After Scripps News reached out to the City of Flint for comment on the ruling, spokesperson Caitie O’Neill sent a written statement attributed to Flint City Attorney William Kim: 

“...The City is committed to continuing to replace lead service lines above and beyond the terms of the NRDC settlement as long as funds are available. To date, the City of Flint has completed service line identification and replacement at 29,485 addresses. Under the settlement agreement, there are approximately 30 addresses requiring lead service line excavation remaining.

“In the years since state-appointed emergency managers made the decisions that damaged our infrastructure and poisoned our residents, the City of Flint has worked diligently to protect the public health of our community. The City of Flint’s water quality is in compliance with all state and federal regulations.” 

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