By Beth Donze
Their exposure to non-potable drinking water has been linked to at least a dozen premature deaths and to an array of ongoing health problems, but with domestic legal options exhausted to get justice for the residents of Flint, Michigan, a group of Loyola law students decided to take Flint’s grievances to a global stage.
On. Nov. 29, the law students filed a petition that aims to call the U.S. government into an international tribunal on charges of violating Flint residents’ right to democracy and, ultimately, their rights to life and health. The students submitted the petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an international human rights tribunal in Washington, D.C.
The petition alleges that multiple human rights violations by Michigan government officials led to the disaster, beginning with Gov. Rick Snyder’s March 2011 signing of a law that replaced Flint’s elected City Council with unelected officials called “emergency managers.”
“This new law provided emergency managers with unchecked power,” said law student Benjamin D’Alessio, retracing Flint’s water crisis at a press conference held just hours after the filing of the first-of-its kind petition.
Concerns went unheeded
Residents protested the emergency manager law at the governor’s home, but to no avail. A grassroots civil rights organization gathered 215,000 signatures on a petition calling for a repeal of the emergency managers act, only to be rejected by the state “for being in the wrong font,” D’Alessio said.
Michigan voters overturned the act, decisively stating they did not want the emergency manager system, but the Michigan Legislature enacted Public Act 436, which effectively reinstated the system and eliminated the ability of the people to vote on the issue again.
A public safety hazard erupts
The students said a major blow to Flint residents’ well-being took place in April 2011, on the watch of these unelected emergency mangers, when the city began drawing water from the polluted Flint River – instead of from Detroit – “in an effort to save money,” D’Alessio said. The city also did not provide corrosion control treatment to prevent lead from leaching from the pipes into the water.
“Residents immediately complained about the smell, taste and appearance of the water. They raised health concerns including rashes, hair loss, memory loss and infections among others,” D’Allesio said.
By the fall of that year, fecal coliform bacteria were detected in the water supply, prompting a boil-water advisory and the flushing out of the system with chlorine. The chlorine level was so high, Flint’s emergency managers allowed the General Motors plant in Flint to switch back to Detroit water because chlorine was corroding engine parts. Yet residents were left exposed to “toxic contaminants,” D’Allesio said.
The state’s inattentiveness to Flint’s drinking water crisis showed itself again in January 2015, the petition alleges, when the city of Detroit offered to reconnect Flint to its water system at no cost. An unelected emergency manager rejected that offer, insisting that the water was safe, even as children were developing rashes and mysterious illnesses and residents were bringing jugs of rancid, discolored water to community forums.
Two months later, Flint City Council members voted 7-1 to stop using Flint River water and reconnect with Detroit, but an emergency manager overruled the vote, saying that costs would spiral and that water from Detroit was no safer.
Media coverage and public pressure finally enabled Flint to switch back to Detroit water by October 2015, but the system continues to be heavily contaminated with lead and multiple strains of bacteria, the petition alleges. To date, 91 diagnosed cases and 12 deaths due to Legionnaire’s disease have been linked to the Flint River water, and at least 12,000 children are facing lifelong health problems from the irreversible effects of lead poisoning. The son of one of the clients named in the petition was admitted to the ICU with one functioning lung, untreatable pneumonia, a heart surrounded by pus, and a failing liver.
“Doctors asked his mother which countries he had recently visited, because he was dying from Third World bacteria,” D’Alessio said. “The people of Flint were stymied at every democratic avenue they embarked on,” he added. “They took to the streets, to the courts, to the City Council, and at every stop, with the simple demand of determining the future of their own well-being, were blocked by unelected emergency managers who did not share in their pain.”
The law students, who have been visiting Flint for nearly a year to interview victims, said those named in the petition reported the loss of hair and teeth, as well as miscarriages and fertility problems.
“Now the pipes themselves have bacteria in them – you’re still sending this clean water through bad pipes,” said law student Michael Moore, noting how residents can’t simply move away from the problem because of circumstances related to housing, employment, insurance, economics and other factors.
“So, you’re stuck in this awkward position where you can’t move (and) you don’t trust what the government says because for years they told you that this water is OK and it wasn’t – and so you’re taking baths with gallon jugs every day and you become neurotic and you just don’t trust the government,” Moore said.
“For something to happen like this in the 21st century in the United States, where we’re supposed to be a democratic government that helps our people, is mind-baffling to me.”
Went to U.S. Supreme Court
Flint residents exhausted their domestic legal remedies, with federal courts denying an enforceable “right to democracy” and the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to hear the case.
“That’s why we had to turn to international law,” explained law student Sarah Lambert, noting that as a member of the Organization of American States, the United States is legally bound by international documents including the OAS Charter, the American Declaration of Rights of Man, the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“All of these international documents protect the right to democracy. What this means is that they protect the rights of individuals to participate in their own government,” Lambert said. “This means that elected individuals must have the authority to act.”
With Flint’s elected city council members stripped of all authority to act, “their authority was given to unelected, appointed and unaccountable emergency managers,” Lambert said. “An emergency manager decided unilaterally to switch to the Flint River as an interim water source for the people of Flint and overrode the vote of the council to switch back to the Detroit water source even after problems were detected,” she said.
Law student Joshua Lewis said what happened in Flint was a clear violation of democracy.
“People died from it; people got sick from it; children were poisoned,” Lewis said. “If this had happened in Cuba or Venezuela, the United States government would condemn it; but because it happened here, we just pretend like nothing is wrong. It’s important to acknowledge that this ongoing crisis is a violation of our basic human rights and we must demand that our government be just as invested in preserving democracy at home as it is in creating it abroad.”
Rights to clean water, life
The student advocates were guided by Jeanne Woods, Loyola Law’s Ted and Louana Frois Distinguished Professor in International Law Studies. Woods said a decision in the residents’ favor, while not binding in the United States, would establish that clean and safe water is a basic human right and could influence policymaking on issues from infrastructure to water and waste management.
Woods said Flint is a case study on what can happen when people are unable to protect their human rights. She said water problems certainly resonate with Louisianans, given their brushes with boil-water advisories, brain-eating amoeba and toxic lead.
“We’re just a heartbeat away from this type of problem,” Woods said. “In the United States, water is not recognized as a human right; health is not recognized as a human right. So, what we hope to gain in this, even though this commission does not have the authority to on its own enforce its recommendations, (is) to make law. We’re hoping that the commission will say water is a human right; the Flint situation is a violation of the right to water. Democracy is a human right; the emergency managers system in Flint is a violation of that right.”
Those interested in supporting or donating to organizations working with those affected by the crisis in Flint are invited to visit the FlintH2OJustice page on Facebook.
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.