Huffington Magazine Issue 184 - Page 10

A row of solitary confinement cells.

ver the summer, people in Flint, Michigan, discovered they had been drinking tap water with dangerously high levels of

lead, a neurotoxin that can cause miscarriages and damage children's developing brains. The state government admitted in October that its own actions had contributed to the public health emergency, and several state officials resigned in disgrace at the end of December.

Local public officials have called on the federal government to intervene. In her successful mayoral bid this past fall, Karen Weaver campaigned in part on that demand.

"We need federal help," Weaver said in September, something she essentially repeated in December when declaring a state of emergency.

In fact, the federal government was already deeply involved. It took the efforts of private citizens to expose the threat to public health, as it had in Washington, D.C., when that city suffered a major water lead crisis a decade ago.

"This experience has really shattered my trust in government," said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician whose research showed a spike in lead poisoning among children after the city switched its water supply in 2014. "It's not that I was naive to start with, but you'd expect that utilities, states, federal agencies would take their jobs seriously and try to protect people rather than deliberately mislead, lie and make up excuses not to protect public health."

People outside the government who were veterans of the D.C. water contamination and coverup helped blow the whistle in Flint. Hanna-Attisha became involved thanks partly to an August barbecue with two lifelong friends, one of whom happened to have worked for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington when the city's taps spewed lead from 2001 through 2004.

They talked about the then-smoldering controversy over the decision to pull the city's water from the Flint River instead of buying it from Detroit's system. Brown stuff was coming out of people's faucets – it tasted bad and caused rashes. The city had changed the water supply at the behest of emergency managers installed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) in what was supposed to be a cost-saving move. Flint officials toasted the change even though everyone should have known, thanks to an earlier analysis, that the river water could be dangerously corrosive to city pipes.

Residents could tell something had gone wrong with the tap water (it was brown!), but officials pooh-poohed concerns about high lead levels – just as they had in Washington. Elin Betanzo, the former EPA official, knew a way to the truth.

"You have access to all the health records for the children of Flint," Betanzo recalled telling Hanna-Attisha that night. "I said, 'You've got to do this: You've got to look at your blood lead levels.'"

As director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Hanna-Attisha could sidestep the government to get her hands on blood lead data for children in Flint. It was the same kind of data that had been crucial in Washington.

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Then-Mayor Anthony Williams discusses high lead levels in Washington's water at a February 2004 press conference. Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Florida Governor Jeb Bush in 2006, his last year in office. Associated Press

Bush Email Archive

In a recent interview with The Huffington Post, Bush recalled breakfast meetings with Catholic bishops at which the issue would come up. “The last thing they always talked about – after feeding the poor, and dealing with homelessness, and giving parents school choice, and protecting the lives of unborn babies – was the death penalty,” he said. “It is a tenet of my faith and there was a conflict there."

In July of his first year in office, Bush oversaw his first execution.

Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis had been convicted of brutally killing a pregnant woman and her two daughters. He spent 17 years on death row, exhausting appeals and receiving stays from two earlier dates with the electric chair. During his entire time on death row, Davis' weight concerned officials. As his execution neared, it became an urgent matter. The electric chair had a 350-pound limit. Davis came in at 349. The prison put him on a diet and spent $706 for red oak lumber to build a new chair that was wider and less rickety. The electrical current remained the same.

On the day of his execution, July 8, 1999, an arthritic, 344-pound Davis had to be wheeled to the chair by his guards.

At approximately 7:01 a.m., leather belts were strapped around his arms, chest and legs and a 5-inch-wide leather strap was placed across his mouth, forcing his nose upward. A mask was then lowered over his face.

Witnesses said that at this point Davis began issuing muffled screams or moans. When the switch was flipped, blood started to drip from under the mask, over his chin and neck, forming an 8-by-12 inch puddle on his white button-down shirt. Then-state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite (R) claimed to see the shape of a cross in the blood – a sign of God forgiving Davis for his sins. Brown-Waite, who was in the room, recalled the execution as "pretty gruesome,” but just.

Davis' muffled screams quieted. But he still appeared to be breathing. After the electrical current was switched off, his chest rose and fell 10 times.

“It took a few moments, seconds really, to realize what was going on, that this was not the normal, quiet, efficient execution that the state wanted portray,” said veteran Tampa reporter John Sugg, who also witnessed the execution in person. “He wasn’t dead. You could hear him. I heard him.”

By 7:15 a.m., Davis has been declared dead. His body was covered in burns – on his head, his groin, and behind his right knee. Photos taken shortly after showed his face had turned purple, likely the result of partial asphyxiation.

GRAPHIC PHOTO

(Tap to Reveal)

Bush was unapologetic. In the days after the execution, he insisted, as prison officials would too, that the bleeding started before the electricity, and he pleaded that sympathy be directed toward Davis’ victims. The controversy, he said, was “an argument over a nosebleed.”

Following the Davis execution, another death row inmate challenged the state's use of the electric chair. In September 1999, the Florida Supreme Court ruled, 4-3, that the chair was legal. In a scathing dissent, Justice Leander Shaw wrote that Davis was “brutally tortured to death by the citizens of Florida” and described the state’s record of bungled executions as “acts more befitting a violent murderer than a civilized state.” To make his point, he included photos of Davis’ body in his dissent.

"Execution by electrocution – with its attendant smoke and flames and blood and screams – is a spectacle whose time has passed," Shaw wrote.

The sorry state of the death penalty in Florida was on the mind of Stephen Hanlon, then the partner in charge of Holland & Knight’s pro-bono department, when he spotted Bush in the law firm’s Tallahassee office shortly before Bush took office. He knew what he needed to do. He dug out his copy of Von Drehle’s book and handed it to Bush.

The book detailed what Hanlon knew all too well: Florida struggled to find and fund qualified lawyers to defend the condemned and qualified judges to oversee the trials. The judicial system, as Von Drehle wrote, was “a slapdash machine designed in confusion, built of spare parts and baling wire.”

Between 1973 and 1995, the Florida Supreme Court reversed 49 percent of the state’s death sentences after analyzing trial transcripts and finding errors, a 2000 Columbia University study found. That count didn't include inmates who were freed based on new evidence, faulty witness testimony, or coerced confessions. Florida led the country in death-row exonerations during this period.

Hanlon had worked death penalty cases and knew how overburdened appellate lawyers were. He needed Bush to know that the system was hitting a crisis point. “This is the brain surgery of our profession,” he said, “and we were throwing people at it who just had no idea what they were doing."

At some point early in his first year in office, Bush returned to Hanlon’s office with the Von Drehle book full of passages underlined in red ink. In their conversation, Bush acknowledged that there were problems with defense lawyers and questions about whether the death penalty even deterred crime, according to Hanlon.

“My general impression was this was a very smart guy,” Hanlon said. “He was very much into policy. He knew there were very serious problems.”

"I believe that, as a thoughtful person and a good Catholic, he was terribly conflicted...I had hopes that he would leave the dark side."

—Talbot D’Alemberte,

then president of Florida State University.

But Bush and his staff didn’t see a broken system. They saw instead an activist Florida Supreme Court that gummed up the appeals process and needlessly prevented executions from taking place. Writing for the conservative Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies newsletter in August 1999, Reginald Brown, Bush’s then-deputy general counsel, lamented the high percentage of death sentences the court reversed – at that point, 79 percent.

“Jeb believed in the death penalty and wanted to enforce it,” Brown told HuffPost. “He thought that the Florida Supreme Court was trying to do a pocket veto of the law.”

In October 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up a case from Florida asking whether the electric chair amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Two months later, Bush called a special session of the state legislature and pushed a bill that designated lethal injection as the main method of carrying out executions while leaving the chair as an option. The bill quickly passed through the legislature. The threat of a U.S. Supreme Court decision gutting Florida's death penalty was averted.

During the same special session, Bush called for legislation to severely limit the ability of death row inmates to appeal their sentences. He and his allies promised that the bill, known as the Death Penalty Reform Act of 2000, would reduce the average time between sentence and execution from 14 years to five years or less. "What I hope is that we become like Texas: Bring in the witnesses, put them on a gurney, and let’s rock and roll," Bradford Thomas, Bush's top adviser on the death penalty, chest-thumped to the St. Petersburg Times. (Bush would later appoint Thomas as an appellate judge.)

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, left, addresses members of the House Republican caucus on death penalty legislation during a special session in 2000.

Associated Press

Raquel Rodriguez, Bush's former general counsel, told HuffPost that the governor "felt the system was being abused and that those delays were an abuse of the system and a disservice to the victims, who were forced to live for years and years knowing that the person who killed their loved one was still sitting in prison even though they had been sentenced to death."

But members of the state legislature's black caucus objected strenuously, even inviting Freddie Pitts, one of the state's most famous exonerees, to testify. Pitts and another man, Wilbert Lee, had been wrongly convicted of the murder of two gas station attendants in 1963 after police beat them into confessing to the crime. Pitts recalled to HuffPost that the sheriff at the time bragged, “This will be two n*****s that won’t be in that March to Washington.”

Pitts said he and Lee were pressured to plead guilty. An all-white jury sentenced them to death. The entire proceeding took less than a day. They remained behind bars even after a white man confessed to the murders. They would not be exonerated until 1975.

A quarter-century later, Pitts addressed the Florida House of Representatives. Republicans had allowed him only one minute to speak, he said. He explained that had Bush’s law been in effect when he was on death row, he would be dead. Then he walked off the floor.

“It was dead silence for a good minute, maybe longer,” Pitts remembered.

It wasn't enough. The bill passed by a single vote after the second-ranking House Democrat defected to back the measure.

Bush heralded the bill as “a historic piece of legislation” that would be "respectful of family members and victims" and “bring a semblance of justice to this very complicated issue.”

Others were shocked. “It just doesn’t make any sense for a guy who was that bright,” Hanlon said. “The one word I would use is inexplicable. That wasn’t the Jeb Bush I thought I knew.”

The Florida Supreme Court had another word for the legislation: unconstitutional. A few months after the governor signed the bill into law, the court ruled that it violated the state constitution’s separation-of-powers clause and the rights of defendants to due process and equal protection. The court voided most of the new statute, but warned that the capital punishment system's problems would endure unless the state provided proper funding "for competent counsel during trial, appellate, and postconviction proceedings."

Bush was unbowed. Bush was unbowed. In his short time in office, he had already seen a botched execution and legal setbacks with the state Supreme Court rebuke, yet he pressed forward. “The problem isn't the means of execution," he wrote in one email. "It is the delays created by a system of excessive appeals.”

As Bush attempted to hasten death row appeals, he sought to calm critics by setting up a task force to analyze whether race played a factor in the state’s capital cases. For those familiar with the death penalty in Florida, it was entirely redundant.

“You didn’t need a task force to know looking at the simple numbers that the race of the victim played a major role, especially in Florida,” said state Sen. Chris Smith (D). “The dirty little secret in politics is the task force was only set up to muddy the waters."

Ultimately, Bush’s task force recommended that the issue of race be studied further. Neither the governor nor the legislature established an initiative or set aside funding to examine the issue again. Instead, executions in Florida continued without pause.

On June 7, 2000, Bennie Demps, a racial justice advocate within the prison system, was put to death by lethal injection. Demps had been convicted of killing a fellow prisoner. He never stopped professing his innocence, claiming he had been set up by corrupt officials. Before his execution took place, Pope John Paul II sent a letter to Bush seeking clemency. The governor declined to grant it.

The execution went awry shortly after it began. Technicians struggled for more than a half-hour to find a vein. When the curtains in the chamber finally opened, Demps screamed out that what was about to transpire was nothing more than a "low-tech lynching."

In a narrative of events he wrote after the fact, George Schaefer, one of Demps' attorneys, recalled the anxiety building in the witness gallery during the delay and remembered hearing “some strange drum beats or perhaps even music while waiting.” That anxiety turned to shock once Demps appeared and delivered his last words. Schaefer wrote that his client “went on to ask that I request an investigation of what had just happened to him. He said that the officials had cut into his groin and into his leg and that he had bled profusely. He said that it was very important that his body be examined because it would show where there were sutures. He mentioned he had been ‘butchered.’”

Schaefer had nightmares for a month after the execution, he said. He eventually moved to San Diego, where he currently works as a lawyer for the city handling civil litigation. “It was very traumatic for me,” he said.

At the governor's office, there was a different reaction. Asked for his thoughts after the Demps execution, Bush replied that the procedure was done "according to the textbook."

"There was no botched nature to it at all."

Tap here to read the rest of this story.

Opener: Getty Images/Shutterstock

In 2001, a change in treatment chemicals caused unsafe amounts of lead to leach from Washington's aging pipes into the water supply. The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and the EPA knew of high lead levels by 2002, but it wasn't until a bombshell Washington Post story that the public learned the full scope of the problem – in January 2004.

Then, two months after the Post story, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a calming report that said nobody had been hurt. Among the 201 residents in homes that had excessively high water lead levels -- more than 300 parts per billion -- nobody's blood lead exceeded the government's "level of concern," the CDC said. Local officials seized on the report, declaring Washington's toxic tap-water event a non-crisis after all.

That CDC study seemed to alter the government's very understanding of the dangers of lead in water. A local task force created to respond to the crisis said in its final report that "there is scant scientific evidence to suggest a direct connection between lead in drinking water and lead absorption into the body" – a statement that contradicted several previous peer-reviewed studies.

Shortly after the CDC's study came out, the EPA also removed warnings from some of its websites that water with lead levels above 40 parts per billion "poses an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of children and pregnant women." An EPA spokesperson later said the agency couldn't find a scientific basis for the statement when it updated its websites.

Today the agency's position is that no amount of lead in water is safe. The EPA requires local water systems to take action when the lead in water from 10 percent of tested taps exceeds 15 parts per billion.

Lead poisoning is most commonly caused by peeling paint and lead dust in homes constructed before 1978, when the U.S. government banned lead paint for domestic applications. But experts have long known that lead in water can be just as harmful.

In children, the symptoms of lead poisoning include stunted growth, irritability, weight loss, abdominal pain, hearing loss and cognitive dysfunction. But these symptoms might not become apparent for years, and tracing them definitively to lead is all but impossible. Most horrifyingly, kids who suffer lead poisoning can permanently lose IQ points.

Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor with Virginia Tech and an expert on drinking water safety, was skeptical of the CDC's claim that nobody in Washington had been hurt. He tested a theory that maybe the type of rust in city pipes didn't transmit lead as speedily. That theory didn't pan out. In 2005, Edwards – who two years later would receive a MacArthur "genius" grant – went on the offense with a series of Freedom of Information Act requests. The local and federal agencies involved in water oversight refused to provide the data on lead levels in D.C. children's blood that underlay the CDC's claims. Using the same strategy that Hanna-Attisha would later deploy in Flint, Edwards obtained the data from a local hospital.

In 2009, Edwards published research finding that high lead levels in D.C. water from 2001 through 2004 resulted in high blood lead levels in hundreds – and perhaps thousands – of D.C. children. Research that he published in 2013 showed a spike in late-term miscarriages that correlated with the high water lead levels a decade earlier.

Edwards' FOIA requests revealed damning details about the CDC's report, including several emails from officials concerned that key information had been omitted. Crucially, many of the children in the sample had been drinking bottled, instead of tap, water at the time their blood was taken. Abstaining from water with high lead levels for even a short period results in a drop in blood lead.

"Do we want to mention that many of DC residents … have been drinking bottled water before any of this went public?" one of the report's co-authors wrote in an email shortly before the paper was published. That confounding detail was left out.

Edwards’ efforts paid off – The Washington Post's Robert McCartney reported that Edwards had succeeded in "forcing the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to admit that it had misled the public about the risk of lead in the District's drinking water." A House subcommittee in 2010 investigated the CDC's report and produced a scathing paper of its own. It called the agency's conclusions "scientifically indefensible."

"The CDC report flew in the face of every peer-reviewed scientific study on the effect of lead exposure that had ever been published, and they went forward knowing it was based on flawed information," said former Rep. Brad Miller, who had chaired the subcommittee, in an interview with The Huffington Post.

The CDC didn't retract its report, but added some important asterisks – including a "notice to readers" explaining that "the blood lead levels did not necessarily represent what peak blood levels might have been before the problems with the DC water supply were recognized." It also explained that some blood data had been missing from the original analysis.

In 2011, the journal Environmental Research published a continuation of the CDC's work that found that lead pipes carrying water directly to people's houses were, in fact, a risk factor for high lead levels in Washington's kids from 2001 through 2004.

Dr. Tom Frieden, who became director of the CDC in 2009, said the following year that the original report "left room for misinterpretation and may have led some people to improperly minimize concerns about lead exposure and conclude that lead in the water had never been a problem."

Miller, a liberal Democrat from North Carolina who has since left Congress, found the whole experience exasperating.

"It undermines the credibility of government agencies," he said. "I found articles in right-wing publications that seemed to relish the stories as evidence that government can't be trusted."

Now it's the turn of Flint residents to wonder whether they can trust their government to tell the truth about the tap water. Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

The Flint Water Plant.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Last year, it happened again.

One morning in August, Michael Webber was sitting at his desk, browsing on the computer with his father-in-law.

"Everything's normal, fine. All of a sudden, I noticed a fuzzy spot," Webber, 45, told HuffPost. "And I'm like, 'What is that?' I closed my right eye and my vision was just gone. And I'm like, 'That's odd.'"

Webber lives in a moderate-to-low income neighborhood on the south side of Flint with his wife and two daughters. They get by on Social Security disability benefits because of spinal injuries, hers from a car accident, his a degenerative condition.

"My husband said to my dad, 'How unusual, I just lost vision in one eye. I can't see out of it,'" Keri Webber recalled in an interview.

Michael Webber said his doctors told him that his blood pressure had risen swiftly enough to cause an "eye stroke." An opthamologist told him his full vision would never come back.

"An artery in my eye burst. Now, we have been tracking my blood pressure, which had been steadily elevating since the switch" to the Flint River as the city's water supply, Webber said. "They're just saying it's due to high blood pressure. However, my blood pressure normally is 140 over 80. I'm getting readings 160 over 95, 160 over 100."

High blood pressure is a symptom of lead poisoning in adults. The Webbers said they quit drinking from their taps in June and limited bathing to twice a week.

Dr. Ana Navas-Acien, main author of a 2006 review of the scientific literature on the relationship between lead and cardiovascular disease, said that available research doesn't indicate how long symptoms persist after exposure stops. Blood lead levels can decline within a month, but the lead doesn't actually go away.

"Lead accumulates in the body, in the bones, and from there it remains as an internal source of exposure for a long time," Navas-Acien, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said in an interview.

Keri Webber is certain the water poisoned her husband.

"He's not middle-aged, he's certainly not elderly," she said. "And we have [been to] 14 doctor's appointments in two weeks, and what they have found is he had an eye stroke, literally, due to high blood pressure. They ruled out everything but lead."

"This poisoning of an entire population was entirely preventable."

- Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

The city and state governments resisted tackling Flint's problem last year even in the face of several bright red flags.

In June, more than a year after the city had begun using the Flint River as its water source, an EPA official named Miguel Del Toral wrote up the preliminary results of his investigation into reports of high lead levels. The memo lamented the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's failure to make sure the river water was treated so that it wouldn't corrode the city's pipes, many of which contained lead. Del Toral explained that federal rules require systems of Flint's size to control for corrosion.

"A major concern from a public health standpoint is the absence of corrosion control treatment in the City of Flint for mitigating lead and copper levels in the drinking water," Del Toral wrote. "Recent drinking water sample results indicate the presence of high lead results in the drinking water, which is to be expected in a public water system that is not providing corrosion control treatment. The lack of any mitigating treatment for lead is of serious concern for residents that live in homes with lead service lines or partial lead service lines, which are common throughout the City of Flint."

That memo wasn't supposed to be released, but Curt Guyette, a reporter for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, obtained a copy from Lee Ann Walters, a Flint resident who had been given a copy by Del Toral after he took water samples from her house. She'd contacted the EPA because she was worried about her water and her kids.

City and state officials downplayed Del Toral's report, and the EPA said it was only a draft that wasn't supposed to be released. Brad Wurfel, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, told a local reporter in July that "anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax." In August, department officials met with Flint residents – including Walters – and told them that Del Toral had been "handled" and that his report wouldn't be finalized.

Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor, had been watching the Flint water situation since Walters sought him out for additional tests on her water, which Edwards' analysis revealed to have "toxic waste" levels of lead. When he heard about the meeting and the dismissive tone that officials took with Walters, he got mad.

"I was shaking with anger because to brag, smirk, laugh at a mother with lead-poisoned kids, what kind of people do that?" Edwards said. "Frankly, they're just evil, horrible people."

His experience battling various levels of government over Washington's water crisis has left him so jaded that he almost sounds like a conspiracy theorist.

"In D.C., I learned that you can't trust your kids with a government agency," Edwards said.

Like many other Flint residents, the Webbers are buying a lot of bottled water.

Philip Lewis/The Huffington Post

After Michigan state officials downplayed Del Toral's report, Edwards assembled a team of his Virginia Tech colleagues and students to independently test Flint's water, marshaling the help of activists and volunteers there to collect samples. When state officials said they doubted his preliminary results, which showed high lead levels, Edwards launched FOIA requests for Michigan's own data and official correspondence related to the government's response.

Edwards' team also created a website, FlintWaterStudy.org, where they publicly posted everything they found – a strategy inspired by D.C. water safety activist Yanna Lambrinidou, who had run a similar website in Washington.

"Once we saw the lead in water was high, we started directly working with ACLU and the activist groups in Flint, which is kind of something you don't do, because people will say you're an activist," Edwards said. "But what I learned in D.C., science alone is powerless, absolutely powerless, to these agencies. Facts mean nothing to these people. Scientific truth means nothing to them."

The emails uncovered through Edwards' record requests revealed bumbling by the state government, but also the degree to which the EPA helped state and local leaders try to allay public concerns.

Susan Hedman, the administrator of the regional EPA office, told then-Mayor Dayne Walling in a July email that Del Toral's "preliminary draft report should not have been released outside the agency" – something Hedman reiterated in several other messages. During his unsuccessful re-election campaign, Walling told voters that Del Toral's report didn't reflect the opinion of the entire agency.

"Hedman just buried the thing," Edwards said. "Edit and vet it until no one cares."

In a recent interview, Hedman said Del Toral's urging that the state implement corrosion control for Flint's water was a recommendation that the EPA was already making to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. She said the EPA clammed up about the memo because it contained identifying information about a private citizen, Lee Ann Walters, and her children's blood lead levels. The EPA stayed quiet even after Wurfel, the Michigan department spokesman, called Del Toral a "rogue employee" in the fall.

"It seemed the best course of action for us at the time was not to talk about the report per se," Hedman said, noting that the EPA did say it

was helping state and local agencies with the water situation.

Though the EPA stayed mum about Del Toral's report, Hedman said the Department of Environmental Quality apologized to him for the "rogue" characterization. She emphasized that Del Toral is part of the team. "He is one of the top experts in the world on lead and copper in drinking water and a key member of EPA's Flint Safe Drinking Water Task Force," she said.

In late September, Dr. Hanna-Attisha released her findings documenting a spike in blood lead levels among Flint's kids that corresponded with the city's water switch (the research was later formally published in the American Journal of Public Health). The county government issued a lead advisory, and in October the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality admitted that it had failed to follow federal rules for corrosion control. Soon after, Flint switched back to Detroit's water system, though it's unclear how soon lead levels will fall.

HuffPost asked Hedman why it took outside pressure to force a change.

"An informed public that calls on government to take action is an important force for protection of the environment and public health," Hedman said.

Hanna-Attisha put it more strongly: "This poisoning of an entire population was entirely preventable."

At the end of the year, Wurfel and Department of Environmental Quality director Dan Wyant both resigned. "I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened," Gov. Snyder said at the time.

"In D.C., I learned that you can't trust your kids with a government agency."

- Professor Marc Edwards

Several Flint residents have sued over the harm to their health, but if what happened in Washington is any guide, they won't get swift justice.

Several D.C. parents went to court, asking for compensation for injuries to their children allegedly caused by lead poisoning. The courts wouldn't let a class action case proceed, and now just a handful of families expect to go to trial this year.

One of the plaintiffs, John Parkhurst, a single father of two boys, alleges that the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (now DC Water) knew of high lead levels in 2001 and did nothing to warn consumers. In 2007, worried about his sons' behavioral and learning difficulties, Parkhurst took them to a doctor for neurophysical evaluation, which identified learning and attention problems. The cost of medication and therapy for the boys eventually totaled as much as $75,000, the suit contends, and the boys also face "diminished earning capacity because of the intellectual impairments they have suffered."

Washington has kept its lead levels below the EPA's required action level since 2005, and DC Water said lead levels are historically low.

Despite scientific evidence that, at a minimum, hundreds of children suffered elevated blood lead levels in the early 2000s, DC Water chief George Hawkins told HuffPost that it's not clear to him that anyone had been harmed by the once-toxic water. Hawkins formerly served as the city's point person on lead poisoning prevention.

"In most of the lead cases we worried about in the city, you almost always track it down to lead paint or something of a much greater concentration," Hawkins said. "I think the jury is still out."

Arthur Delaney reported from Washington.

Philip Lewis reported from Flint.