By Matthew Dolan and Paul Egan
The Michigan attorney general filed a lawsuit Wednesday morning against a water company and an engineering firm, plus several related companies, in connection with the Flint drinking water crisis, alleging the firms' "acts and omission constitute professional negligence, fraud and public nuisance."
Attorney General Bill Schuette's lawsuit names seven corporate defendants in all, but according to court records they are all related to two firms that did work for the City of Flint.
The civil lawsuit filed in Flint in Genesee County Circuit Court and obtained by the Detroit Free Press accuses the companies of causing "the Flint Water Crisis to occur, continue and worsen," the lawsuit said. The companies listed as defendants include Veolia North America, Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam and Leo A. Daly Co., which is LAN's parent company.
The attorney general's office said in court papers that the city of Flint and state of Michigan hired the firms for their expertise but "as a result of the defendent corporations' acts and omissions, Flint's lead pipes corroded, leaching lead into residents' drinking water, ultimately poisoning the residents themselves."
LAN issued a statement saying the company was "surprised and disappointed that the state would change direction and wrongfully accuse LAN of acting improperly," and "LAN will vigorously defend itself against these unfounded claims."
The statement said Schuette "blatantly mischaracterized the role of LAN's service to Flint and ignores the findings of every public investigation into this tragedy that the key decisions concerning the treatment of the water from the Flint River were made by the City of Flint and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality."
It went on to say that "contrary to statements by the Attorney General, LAN was not hired to operate the plant and had no responsibility for water quality, but, and although LAN was not asked, LAN had regularly advised that corrosion control should be added and that the system needed to be fully tested before going online."
Veolia spokesman Paul Whitmore issued a statement saying the company is disappointed that the Attorney General has taken this action and will vigorously defend itself against these unwarranted allegations of wrongdoing."
The statement said "the Attorney General has not talked to Veolia about its involvement in Flint, interviewed the company's technical experts or asked any questions about our one-time, one-month contract with Flint," and "Veolia's engagement with the city was wholly unrelated to the current lead issues."
Flint didn't hire Veolia until nearly one year after the switch to the Flint River, and the company recommended changes "to minimize (disinfectant byproduct) formation along with risks associated with corrosion," the statement said.
Schuette was joined at a 10 a.m. news conference today at U-M Flint by Special Assistant Attorney General Noah Hall and members of his investigative team, which is led by Royal Oak attorney Todd Flood and Andrew Arena, the former special agent in charge of the FBI office in Detroit.
In April, Schuette announced felony criminal charges against two Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials and one City of Flint official in connection with the lead contamination of Flint's drinking water. The city employee, Mike Glasgow, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor as part of a plea agreement reached in the case last month and is cooperating with the investigation. The two DEQ employees, Stephen Busch and Mike Prysby, are awaiting preliminary examinations.
In the civil lawsuit, the attorney general's office said in court papers that the companies had a legal responsibility to act with a level of care and competence befitting their industry's professional standard.
"The defendant corporations knew or should have known that high chloride levels in the Flint River would make the water corrosive without significant treatment, and that the corrosion would result in dangerous levels of lead for residents served by the City's many lead pipes," the attorney general's office wrote in its 24-page court filing.
The companies, according to the lawsuit, ignored information that a professional engineer would see as a cause for concern. The addition of ferric chloride only compounded the city's problem and danger to its residents, according to the lawsuit. Furthermore, the attorney general's office accused Veolia of fraud in its interim 2015 report indicating that the city's water was safe, according to court papers.
In 2011, then Flint Mayor Dayne Walling commissioned LAN to conduct a feasibility study of whether the city could use the Flint River as a water source and treat the water locally through a city water treatment plant. The firm was again employed in 2013 at the cost of $171,000 for helping the city start up its use of the Flint River water, the lawsuit says.
But according to the attorney general's lawsuit, LAN in its work between July 2013 and April 2014 "failed to meet its duty of care and competence at a professional standard," the lawsuit alleges. "When the Flint Water Treatment Plant, with upgrades designed and implemented by LAN, began distributing Flint River water" in April 2014, "it did so without implement s corrosion control program."
As for Veolia, the lawsuit alleges the water consulting company was hired by the city in February 2015 as it was dealing with federal safe drinking water violations and residents' complaints about the quality of the water. The company issued an interim report later that month, according to the lawsuit.
"Veolia again states that there is no health or safety problem," saying that discoloration did not mean that the water was necessarily image, the lawsuit said. It responded to questions about medical problems reported by residents by stating some people might be sensitive to any water, the suit alleges.
The attorney general's office called in court papers Veolia's public findings about the nature and cause of the water quality problems in Flint "false and material." The lawsuit accuses the company of making the findings "recklessly without any knowledge of the potential truth."
A later report by Veolia in March "not only missed the problem, its root cause, and the public health implications, it also offered recommendations that made the problem worse." It recommended an additional dosage of ferric chloride, a powerful acid, to the water, a move the attorney general's office alleges was "unqualified and in no way warned that ferric chloride could increase corrosion."
LAN, which is based in Texas but has a Flint office, in May claimed authorship of an August 2013 engineering report on how to prepare the Flint Water Treatment Plant for treating Flint River water on an interim basis. The report made no mention of the need for corrosion control chemicals. The lack of those chemicals has been cited as the reason lead was able to leach into drinking water from pipes, joints, and fixtures. But a LAN spokesman has said it was the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, not the company, that said corrosion control chemicals were not needed.
The Free Press reported in January that a March 2015 consultant's report from Veolia, a multinational environmental consulting firm, recommended spending $50,000 to add corrosion control chemicals to Flint's drinking water because iron was leaching from the pipes and turning the water brown. But the city didn't act on the recommendation at the time, which was well after the lead leaching problem began.
Flint's water became contaminated with lead when the city, under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, switched its drinking water source from Lake Huron water treated by the Detroit water system to Flint River water treated at the Flint Water Treatment Plant.
Michigan DEQ officials have acknowledged a disastrous mistake in failing to require the city to add corrosion-control chemicals as part of the treatment process.
The corrosive water caused lead to leach from pipes, joints and fixtures. Although Flint reconnected to Detroit water in October, after state officials acknowledged the lead-poisoning problem after months of denials, the risk remains because of damage to the water infrastructure system.
Officials also are exploring possible links between the river water and outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease tied to 12 deaths.
(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press