(ACLU) and (NRDC) have cited a Scripps News investigation from May as evidence as the groups ask a federal judge to “find the City of Flint Michigan and its Mayor in contempt of court” for failing to comply with deadlines to remove hazards that can leach lead into the city’s drinking water.
Last month, Scripps News reported how nearly a decade after the Flint water crisis began, work to remove lead pipes across the city’s water system has slowed to a crawl.
In an April interview Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley, who took office three and a half years ago, repeatedly declined to share an approximate number of the homes that still need their underground water lines inspected.
“Well, those numbers are, you know, are elusive to say,” Neeley said at the time. “I don’t want to be nailed down to actually giving a particular number.”
The mayor instead provided a percentage.
“We’re going to stick with the number of more than 90% has been completed and we’re finishing out the rest.”
Scripps News discovered is also the same claim Neeley’s administration made in August 2020.
A Scripps News analysis of court documents and city progress reports, disclosed by the city following a historic court settlement, showed thousands of residents may still need their drinking water pipes inspected for lead.
More missed deadlines
The court motion, filed last month in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, alleges the city has shown “a pattern of disregard for this Court’s orders over the years.” Representing Flint residents, NRDC and ACLU say the city failed to determine the full scope of work left on the project of finding and replacing the lead and galvanized steel service lines across the city, which became compromised and corrosive after officials switched Flint’s water source in 2014.
The motion asks a federal judge overseeing the city’s progress “to find the City of Flint and its mayor, Sheldon Neeley, in contempt of court for the City’s violations of the Court’s order.” It also asks the court to impose a daily fine of $500 until the city finishes identifying how much work remains.
The court documents filed by plaintiffs as evidence of the need for sanctions include a printout of the text version of the Scripps News investigation from May, as well as emails between plaintiffs’ attorneys and the city’s attorneys. The emails detail plaintiffs’ repeated failed attempts to get timely court-mandated progress reports from the city, and warnings to city lawyers that Flint was in violation of court orders.
Plaintiffs claim the city still has not completed basic steps, such as outreach to obtain consent from residents to do the work required by the settlement agreement. Citing “the history of the city’s noncompliance and its repeated failures to follow through on its promises” the motion also emphasizes the need for the city to provide documentation when it purports to meet the requirements of the settlement agreement.
The city originally agreed, in the 2017 court settlement, to finish all work to find and remove all lead and galvanized steel service lines at Flint residences by Jan. 2020. After the city missed that deadline, it agreed to and missed two subsequent deadlines. The current deadline the city faces to finish all work is Aug. 1.
As of this writing, the city has not yet filed a response to the motion, which is due June 14.
Mayor Neeley initially offered to do a follow-up interview with Scripps News, but after our repeated requests to schedule one in the last month and a half, a spokesperson instead issued a written statement saying the city was committing to finish its work by the August deadline.
Phone lines out
Nearly $100 million in state and federal funds were set aside for the project. One of the city’s contractors, Flint-based Rowe Professional Services, has been awarded at least $5.96 million to manage the project, according to a Michigan Office of the Auditor General report from January.
Scripps News found the city’s “Get the Lead Out” phone number for residents was in and out of service since late April, with residents reporting issues with the phone line since at least July of 2022. A city spokesperson said Rowe Engineering manages the phone line, which, when working, goes straight to voicemail, and when not, hangs up on the caller. City spokesperson Caitie O’Neill promised a “permanent fix” would be coming after our last report, saying the contractor needed to get a larger mailbox due to high call volume.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon during normal business hours, more than a month after O’Neill’s promise, Scripps News was with Flint City Council member Tonya Burns when she tried calling.
“The user’s mailbox is not available at this time,” the recording stated, before hanging up on her.
“If no other line works at City Hall, that line should be working,” Burns said. “There’s no excuse for that. There’s none,” she said.
Afterwards, Scripps News asked the city why it did not provide a live staffer to answer the phone. The city later sent a statement attributed to Rowe Professional Services: “We ask people be patient if the voicemail is full when you call due to a large increase in the calls received daily. We are discussing a potential fix such as an answering service that operates 24 hours a day but that has not yet been fully researched.”
For our original report, Scripps News told Neeley about seven different Flint residents, who we discovered have repeatedly contacted the city but are still waiting to get contractors out to their homes years later, including Adia McCullough.
“They came in, spray painted the pipeline, and they put little flags and then they left, and they never did the work,” she told us in April.
McCullough told us her 7-year-old son Robbie has had to drink bottled water his entire life, as they wait for the city to dig underground and inspect their water pipes.
“It feels like you don’t matter,” McCullough said at the time. “The world just keeps going on, and you keep going on, but like you don’t matter. Everyone here’s not important enough,” she said.
After we gave the mayor her address and phone number in late April, he pledged to do something about it. The mayor later called his water department, confirming there was no documentation that work had been completed at her home.
“Now I know her name.” Neeley said. “Now that you’re bringing it to me, I will send a team out.”
When Scripps News asked the mayor how long residents like McCullough should have to wait for a team to assess their homes, he responded, “Once that call comes in and we catalog that call, I would assume no more than two weeks before they see some level of action.”
Scripps News returned to Flint more than a month later and met with McCullough outside her home, where her yard was intact — with no signs of digging.
“No action still,” said McCullough.
She also said she had not heard from the city or any of its contractors.
After Scripps News asked the city about Adia’s status, a spokesperson repeated what she told us last month — that Rowe told them they had a work order in for her home, this time adding “We are awaiting more information about scheduling.”
The same day the city sent that response, Tuesday of this week, McCoullough said someone from the city showed up at her house, asking her to sign another consent form to give the city permission to inspect the pipes. McCullough previously said she had signed multiple consent forms over the years.
McCullough said contractors did arrive at her house the next day, Wednesday (the day of this writing).
“I can’t help but wonder, is this happening for everyone else though,” McCullough said.
The next deadline
The current court deadline the city faces to finish all work on the project is Aug. 1. In April, Scripps News asked Mayor Neeley if the city would make its August court-ordered deadline.
“We’re going to make all efforts to make all deadlines,” he said, but made clear he was “not guaranteeing” they could “based upon what other obstacles could be out there, that are unseen.”
This week, in a statement to Scripps News, City of Flint spokesperson Caitie O’Neill did make that guarantee.
“The City of Flint’s project manager Rowe Professional Services has assured us that lead service line excavation and replacement work will be completed in compliance with the terms of the NRDC/Concerned Pastors settlement agreement by August 1, 2023,” she wrote.
Scripps News called Rowe Professional Services. A company spokesperson said, “We have a good relationship with the city,” but added that “We have been told by the city attorneys and everybody – don’t comment; make sure everything gets funneled through the city.”
O’Neill later sent a statement attributed to Rowe Professional Services, with Rowe CEO Leanne Panduren copied, clarifying that the company is “projecting” that work will be completed by Aug. 1 “based on the current pace of construction” and that the “completion of all service lines are subject to several factors such as weather, coordination with property owners and other factors that may affect the overall schedule.”
We’ll be following this story. Email [email protected] with questions or tips.