Tide Turning? Two Awesome Legal Victories For Clean Water Does Not Mean We Can Relax [Opinion]

Wednesday brought two important legal victories in the fight for clean water. Certainly, the two biggest clean water-related stories this past year have been the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline construction and the fact that the Flint Water Crisis is still not resolved. After a year of let down, clean water advocates have two victories to celebrate, and both of them came on the same day!

The big question is, will anything actually become of these clean water victories?

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Clean Water Victory

Wednesday, a federal judge ruled that when the federal government issued permits authorizing the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross the path of the Missouri River under Lake Oahe, through unceded Sioux land, it violated federal law. U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must reconsider its environmental review of the pipeline.

They hadn’t properly considered the effects of a possible oil spill in respect to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s fishing and hunting rights, the judge ruled.

“To remedy those violations, the Corps will have to reconsider those sections of its environmental analysis upon remand by the Court,” the judge said.

Next Wednesday both sides will have to meet with the judge and discuss what happens next, Reuters reported.

What does this mean? Well, the pipeline could end up getting shut down. There’s a slim chance, but it’s a better chance than anyone thought the water protectors had two days ago.

“This is a major victory for the Tribe and we commend the courts for upholding the law and doing the right thing,” Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II said in a statement. “We applaud the courts for protecting our laws and regulations from undue political influence and will ask the Court to shut down pipeline operations immediately.”

“This decision marks an important turning point. Until now, the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have been disregarded by the builders of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Trump administration—prompting a well-deserved global outcry,” Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman stated. “The federal courts have stepped in where our political systems have failed to protect the rights of Native communities.”

Flint Water Crisis Victory

In January of last year, Gov. Rick Snyder and two officials from the Health and Human Services Department announced that between June 2014 and November 2015, there were 87 reported cases of Legionella bacteria infection in the Flint area. Then, like a slap in the face, they said that there was no clear evidence that the Legionella outbreak and the switch to the Flint Water Crisis were linked.

Wednesday, five people were charged with involuntary manslaughter after an investigation into the death of an 85-year-old man who had contracted Legionnaire’ disease brought up probable cause about the death and the Flint Water Crisis. Among those charged was Nick Lyon, the head of Michigan’s health department, according to MLIVE.

Lyon is accused of failing to alert the people of Flint about an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease which has been blamed on the conditions of the Flint water. These officials face potentially 15 years in prison, according to The Chicago Tribune. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette indicated that Gov. Rick Snyder might never be charged. Schuette said that evidence of probable cause has not been established in Snyder’s case.

Darnell Earley (Flint’s former emergency manager), Howard Croft (the former head of Flint’s public works department), and environmental regulators Liane Shekter Smith and Stephen Busch are the four others that were charged Wednesday for their connection to the Flint Water Crisis and the death of a Flint resident. Another individual, Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical officer, has been charged with obstruction of justice and lying to an investigator.

Wayne State University law professor Peter Henning told the Chicago Tribune that the case will be a battle of experts.


“They can get a conviction but it’s not going to be easy,” he said.

Lyon has stated that he didn’t inform the public of the Legionnaires’ outbreak for months because he wanted to wait until the state Health and Human Services Department investigators finished their investigation into the situation.

All total, Schuette has now charged over a dozen current or former government officials in association with the Flint Water Crisis.

Both of these clean water victories are exciting. Both of these clean water victories are also a little unexpected, considering how long the public had to remain vigilantly disgusted before anything seemed to happen. Clean water advocates and the general public need to remain vigilant if anything is to become of these victories.

Though people are excited on Twitter and Facebook, the truth is that neither victory in itself has any actual concrete positive impact for clean water, only potential impact. We must not allow these clean water victories to be wasted by assuming anyone will do the right thing if we stop watching.

[Featured Image by Jacquelyn Martin/AP Images]