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Opinion | Flint vowed to replace lead pipes by 2020. We’re still waiting

flint water tower
(Linda Parton /

The word Flint has become synonymous with contaminated drinking water, poor governmental response and community activism that ignited a national conversation about the safety of our tap water.

Our hometown put a spotlight on America’s poor water infrastructure and the country’s severe problem with lead, a potent neurotoxin that is especially harmful to the developing brains of infants and children. And because of us, no one will look away again.

The Biden-Harris Administration committed to replace every lead pipe nationwide in the next decade, a declaration no prior president has made. Even so, while cities like Benton Harbor and Newark, New Jersey finished replacing lead pipes in less than four years, we’re going on year seven of the pipe replacement process.

When we achieved a precedent-setting settlement in our citizen-led lawsuit against the City of Flint and Michigan state officials six years ago, and the city agreed to replace lead pipes by January 2020, we celebrated. It felt like the justice we’d protested for finally came after an already three-year-long battle.

In an op-ed from that hopeful time, we wrote, “This is not just a promise, or the kind of lip service from elected officials we’ve been hearing for years. This is a legal requirement enforceable by a federal court.” While we knew we weren’t done fighting, we had no idea the fight would go on this much longer.

We were frustrated when city officials not only missed the January 2020 deadline, but several others after it. We didn’t know the city’s unorganized work would leave thousands of homes and yards damaged for years. We didn’t expect we would have to go to court five times to get the city to finish the work it promised to do. And we never thought we would have to write this op-ed in 2023.

Pastor Allen Overton
Pastor Allen Overton and Melissa Mays were plaintiffs in the federal safe drinking water case, Concerned Pastors for Social Action v. Khouri.

Our leaders have proved themselves untrustworthy since this crisis first began in 2014. They ignored water laws and told us our water was safe even when they knew it wasn’t. We had to take matters into our own hands by collecting water samples, educating ourselves about lead contamination and ultimately suing to force the government to fix the problem.

Even after securing a legal requirement for the city to replace our lead pipes, we still must hold our officials accountable to see the project through to completion.

In February we had another win after we filed our fifth motion to enforce the settlement, seeking court intervention to ensure Flint finishes the long-overdue work of replacing lead pipes. The court found that Flint violated our settlement by missing its third court-ordered deadline to finish removing lead pipes and by failing to track where it fixed damage to residents’ properties.

The court said the city has mismanaged the process and ordered officials to meet a new August 1, 2023 deadline to finish pipe replacements and to repair overdue damage to residents’ properties.

Melissa Mays
Melissa Mays and Pastor Allen Overton were plaintiffs in the federal safe drinking water case, Concerned Pastors for Social Action v. Khouri.

Because of our activism in Flint, and the national media attention it garnered, communities across the country have the promise of safe drinking water. But that promise has still not been fulfilled for us. When we meet activists from other cities who ask about the work in Flint, it’s embarrassing that we have to say it isn’t done, six years later.

Safe drinking water is a fundamental human right. We will not abide ongoing failures by Flint officials to obey multiple federal court orders to fix the problems they caused. It’s time for the city to finally get this job done and restore human dignity to the people of Flint.

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