June 15, 2017. Two items of legal significance occurred this week, which may have escaped notice with all the non-stop breaking news stories emanating from Washington, DC these days. The first was the favorable decision handed down by US District Court Judge, James Boasberg, on the law suit filed by Earth Justice on behalf of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. In a lengthy 91-page, closely reasoned decision (http://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/files/DAPL-order.pdf), the court ruled “ . . . that the [US Army Corps of Engineer] did not adequately consider the impacts of an oil spill on fishing rights, hunting rights, or environmental justice, or the degree to which the pipeline’s effects are likely to be highly controversial.”
It should be recalled that within four days of his inauguration, President Donald Trump signed (on January 24, 2017) a hastily written Memorandum and Executive Order allowing an expedited review and approval of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). This edict ignored all previous environmental impact assessment conducted by the Corps during the Obama administration. The present Court ruling, however, did not bring immediate halt to the pipeline’s operation, which began pumping crude oil in early June from North Dakota’s Bakken shale oilfields. (To determine further steps to take, Judge Boasberg has convened briefings to obtain status reports next week.)
Nevertheless, this legal decision was a resounding accomplishment for the Standing Rock tribal community, which had bitterly opposed the passage of DAPL through their ancestral lands that potentially affected local fisheries and water resources (http://earthjustice.org/news/press/2017/in-victory-for-standing-rock-sioux-tribe-court-finds-that-approval-of-dakota-access-pipeline-violated-the-law)
“This is a major victory for the Tribe and we commend the courts for upholding the law and doing the right thing,” said Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II in a recent statement. “The previous administration painstakingly considered the impacts of this pipeline, and President Trump hastily dismissed these careful environmental considerations in favor of political and personal interests. We applaud the courts for protecting our laws and regulations from undue political influence and will ask the Court to shut down pipeline operations immediately.”
The second significant legal event this week was the involuntary manslaughter charges brought by Michigan’s Attorney General, Bill Schutte, against five state and local government officials related to tainted drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Previously, the lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Concerned Pastors for Social Action on behalf of the residents of Flint, MI was settled out of court in March of this year. The legal settlement stipulates that the state provide $97 million to revamp the Flint water system and drinking water pipes over the next three years (https://www.nrdc.org/resources/flint-mi-safe-drinking-water-lawsuit-stipulation-settlement)
Stipulation as to the settlement from the Flint, Michigan, Safe Drinking Water lawsuit requires the City of Flint and the State of Michigan to replace Flint’s lead and galvanized steel service lines within three years, while, in the meantime, providing water filter support and education as well as extensive tap water testing. The agreement requires the state to provide $97 million to fund the replacement of the lead and galvanized steel water pipes.
The current charges of involuntary manslaughter stems from a different public health problem from those connected with the presence of high levels of lead in drinking water – the failure to publicly inform about the increased incidence of Legionnaires’ disease among Flint residents after the changeover of water supply sources occurred in 2014 (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/midwest/ct-nick-lyon-flint-water-crisis-20170614-story.html)
Five people, including the head of Michigan’s health department, were charged Wednesday with involuntary manslaughter in an investigation of Flint’s lead-contaminated water, all blamed in the death of an 85-year-old man who had Legionnaires’ disease. Nick Lyon is the highest-ranking member of Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s administration to be snagged in a criminal investigation of how the city’s water system became poisoned after officials tapped the Flint River in 2014.
Lyon, 48, the director of the Health and Human Services Department, is accused of failing to alert the majority-black population about an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Flint area, which has been linked by some experts to poor water quality in 2014-15. An involuntary manslaughter conviction carries up to 15 years in prison.
To fully understand the massive tangle of scientific, legal and political issues related to the Flint drinking water case, a newly released, hour-long NOVA documentary, Poisoned Water, is now available (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hv1nk_0Iwy0). It is a highly accessible and thorough presentation of the technical facts and regulatory machinations surrounding this troubling eco-justice issue.
(* A. Karim Ahmed is an Adjunct Professor at University of Connecticut Health Center, Farmington, CT. He is a Board Member of the National Council for Science and the Environment, Washington, DC and serves on the IREJN Board.)