Jurors in Michigan are considering whether two engineering firms that worked for the city of Flint contributed to the city’s lead-tainted drinking water crisis in 2014 and 2015. The jury’s findings in this bellwether case could impact future claims against the companies.
A five-months-long trial is edging to a finish with closing arguments completed on July 20 and 21.
The families of four Flint children are suing Veolia North America, based in Boston, and Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc. (LAN), headquartered in Houston, over an alleged professional standard of care breach in the firms’ work for the city.
The plaintiffs accused the companies of negligence that contributed to neuro-cognitive injuries in the children from drinking lead-tainted water. The engineering firms, in turn, have pointed the blame at local and state officials. The trial before Eastern Michigan U.S. District Court Judge Judith Levy featured dozens of witnesses and hundreds of pieces of evidence.
The water crisis was caused by corrosive water after the city switched its water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Dept. to the Flint River in April 2014. The river was intended to be a temporary water source until the city could build a connection to the Karegnondi Water Authority. At the time, Flint’s finances were being overseen by a state-appointed emergency manager, and switching from the agency was expected to save money.
Corey Stern, an attorney representing the families, said during closing arguments that both firms failed to recommend the use of orthophosphates to prevent corrosion of lead service lines, or to recommend switching back to Detroit’s water. Flint did eventually return to Detroit water in October 2015.
LAN, a unit of Leo A Daly Co., had worked for Flint prior to switching over to the river water. Wayne Mason, an attorney representing LAN, pointed to testimony that showed the company had recommended testing Flint’s water treatment plant for 60 to 90 days before it began operating, to see if anything such as corrosion controls would be needed. However, evidence during the trial revealed that the operational test ultimately failed, preventing the city from providing LAN with water quality data, Mason said during closing arguments.
Stern said LAN knew the test had failed, but took no action. He suggested the company was motivated by an expectation it would receive additional work as a result of what happened, and that LAN could have insisted on completing testing.
LAN’s chief engineer “sat on his hands waiting for a ... payday,” Stern said.
However, Mason said LAN’s employees had not known what happened with the test and believed preparations were underway. Additionally, he said city officials pushed back on recommendations to spend money on corrosion controls like orthophosphate and a feed system, saying they would only do what was required by the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality. Its officials had claimed it would be OK to wait a year, perform a study, and then make any changes to the water treatment plant and its operations, Mason said. State and local officials were driven to save money and kick spending “down the road,” he added.
“Doing it cheap became the guiding principle,” Mason said during his closing arguments.
Flint later hired Veolia in 2015 to review its water treatment plant operations following other issues with its water besides lead. Stern said notes and emails from Veolia employees show they knew to recommend a phosphate blend, or to switch back to Detroit as the simplest solution. However, those recommendations were not included in the firm’s final report to the city. Veolia had previously been turned down for a bigger contract with Detroit and presumably would not have continued to work for Flint if they returned to Detroit water, Stern said.
Daniel Stein, an attorney for Veolia, said the scope of Veolia’s work did not include comparing the different water sources. The firm’s report recommended a corrosion control study, as well as addressing issues like pH, alkalinity and organic matter which would impact the effects of orthophosphate. Flint officials had repeatedly rejected suggestions they do that over higher costs, even though Detroit offered to let them back on its system without charging a penalty. Stein said that Veolia suggested going back to Detroit water anyway, and they were told to stick to the scope of their work.
Moshe Maimon, another attorney for the plaintiffs, said during closing arguments that half the blame for the crisis fell on Veolia, and 25% on LAN. Michigan, Flint and former Gov. Rick Snyder share smaller portions of responsibility for it, he added.
But Stein and Mason argued that those ultimately responsible for the crisis were treatment plant workers familiar with its operations, the cost-cutting emergency managers and the state officials who OK’d the city’s plan.
Judge Levy said the eight jurors plan to deliberate on a schedule from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. four days per week until they are finished.
Levy previously approved a $626.5-million settlement between Michigan and Flint residents injured by the lead-tainted water. The engineering firms declined to settle.