Civil Rights Coalition Calls on Governor Whitmer to End Detroit Water Shutoffs Crisis

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
January 20, 2020 9:00 am

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DETROIT – After years of fighting Detroit water shutoffs through litigation and advocacy, a coalition of civil rights lawyers and organizations publicly calls on Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to order a moratorium on the interruption of water service to thousands of Detroit households to end a public health emergency. The coalition privately asked the Governor to end the water crisis in a letter nearly three months ago, but yet Detroit water shutoffs continue. The coalition approached the Governor because of years of Detroit city and state officials’ inaction, apathy or disregard.

The coalition of organizations and law firms includes, among others: the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU); Edwards & Jennings; Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice; Detroit Justice Center; Jerome D. Goldberg, Esquire; Marine-Adams Law, P.C.; and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.

“Water is a human right,” said Dave Noble, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. “Elected officials have failed Detroit residents, and they have fought against ending water shutoffs at every opportunity for years. They refuse to enact a water affordability plan indexed to income that would save lives as well as save the city money. We need the Governor to override the disregard for lower income city residents.”

For years the coalition has attempted without success to urge Detroit officials to abandon the use of shutoffs. Their efforts have included: meetings, collaboration with city council, preparation of memoranda, advocacy for individual water customers. Members of the legal team even filed a class action lawsuit against the city that was ultimately considered by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“For years, the DWSD and official powers that be have toyed with the lives of Detroit residents and their families by cruelly shutting off their access to water for sometimes very little owed on their water bill,” said Mark Fancher, Racial Justice Project Attorney for the ACLU of Michigan. “On this Martin Luther King, Jr. day of remembrance, I remind Governor Whitmer of Dr. King’s words, ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’”

Finally, and after years of gridlock with the City of Detroit to make water accessible and affordable, the coalition filed a petition with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) in July. The petition urged the state agency to require the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to suspend water shutoffs by declaring a public health emergency caused by terminating water service to thousands of Detroit residents.

In September MDHHS Director Robert Gordon denied the request stating the MDHHS has “not identified data that suggest a causal association between water shutoffs and water-borne disease.” This, notwithstanding the coalition’s analysis of the many practical dangers of not having water in homes occupied by infant children, the elderly, diabetics and others whose lives depend on access to water.

In November, in an attempt to have Gordon’s decision reversed, the coalition requested a meeting with Governor Whitmer. The request included an analysis of her legal authority to issue an executive order to restore water service for affected Detroit residents; and to impose a moratorium on any future water shutoffs.

“Detroit officials have used water shutoffs as an inhumane tactic against residents for years, and my stance has not changed — clean, affordable water, regardless of income, is a human right which I advocated for while in city government,” said Anthony Adams, former Detroit Deputy Mayor, Interim Director of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, and now founding partner of Marine-Adams Law, P.C.

The DWSD has disconnected water to more than 112,000 households between 2014 and October 2018. After years of litigation, research, and advocacy, coalition partners continue to assess the physical and mental illnesses and distress caused and heightened by residents’ lack of access to running water in their homes.

“It is time for city and state officials to recognize the data that shows a water affordability plan makes sense for Detroit and it makes sense for its people,” said Alice Jennings, founding partner of Edwards & Jennings, P.C. “Research shows if the DWSD sent affordable water bills, people would pay their bills and the city would avoid the expenses of collection, while lower income residents would have access to clean water.”

This release and referenced documents are at:

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