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About the time General Motors was laying off workers in Flint, Michigan, the price of bottled water in America was surpassing the price of gasoline.
For Flint, the situation was much worse than an economic problem. To reduce a water fund shortfall, the city turned to a new water source. That water turned out to be polluted with dangerous levels of lead, and criminal and civil litigation followed.
Now the Flint water crisis has reached an international forum. Loyola New Orleans law students have filed a petition before a human rights tribunal charging the U.S. government with violating rights to life and health in Flint.
Right to Safe Water
Led by professor Jeanne Woods, the students submitted their petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C. They blame the federal government and others, including former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump.
Claire McClinton, a Flint resident and one of the petitioners, told the Times Picayune that it is a human rights issue.
"We still have a toxic water problem, we still have a democracy problem, and we still have healthcare problems," McClinton said.
According to the petition, more than 100,000 people were exposed to the contaminated water. Several government officials have been charged with felonies, including manslaughter. Three of fifteen defendants have pleaded guilty to various crimes.
Human Rights Court
The Loyola petition seeks to establish clean and safe water as a basic human right. A decision would not be binding, Woods said, but it would influence policymakers.
The petition also argues that Michigan's emergency management system denies residents the right to participate in government. The unelected officials have power to overrule elected representatives, according to the petition.
Sarah Lambert, a Loyola law student, said the water crisis contributed to 12 deaths from an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease. Law student Joshua Lewis compared the crisis to problems in New Orleans after Katrina.
"What happened in Flint was clearly a violation of democracy, and people died from it," Lewis said. "People got sick from it, children were poisoned and we still don't know how severely this will affect their lives."