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Judge Orders Bottled Water Delivery To Flint Residents Amid Lead Crisis

Volunteers load a pallet with bottled water to be distributed outside the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in February in Flint, Mich.

A federal judge has ordered state and local governments to provide home delivery of bottled water to the residents of Flint, Mich., as they continue to navigate a years-long crisis over lead-laced water.

U.S. District Judge David Lawson said in his order that the city and state must provide at least four cases of water per resident every week, unless the officials verify the household has a water filter installed that is properly maintained or the residents opt out.

Flint is in the process of repairing its water system after the city switched to a new water source in 2014 without implementing proper corrosion controls. The untreated water corroded the pipes, causing lead to leach out of the pipes. For months, officials have been handing out water filters and distributing bottled water at points throughout the city.

But on Thursday, the judge said that's not enough. The water filters do bring the lead levels below the EPA's action levels, he said, but the distribution and monitoring efforts have been "uneven at best." There's no guarantee the filters are "properly installed and maintained," Lawson wrote.

And he said that picking up water at distribution points "has become a major challenge" for some residents in Flint, where 40 percent of people live below the poverty line. He cites testimony from residents who spoke of confusion about where to pick up the water and how much they were allowed to take, long lines and the cost of transportation needed to take home the heavy bottles. Some people said they were not given enough to meet their family's needs, and some distribution points were said to have short, inconvenient hours.

"The fact that such items are available does not mean that they are reliably accessible or effective in furnishing safe drinking water to every household." Lawson wrote. "Indeed, the endeavor of hunting for water has become a dominant activity in some Flint residents' daily lives."

The judge's order granted a motion for a preliminary injunction seeking immediate, reliable access to safe water, as part of a larger case over lead levels in Flint's water that was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Natural Resources Defense Council and several others.

"Activists have fought hard for home delivery for more than a year," as Michigan Radio reports. "Recent tests showed improvement [in lead levels], but lead levels continue to be higher than acceptable in many Flint homes."

As The Two-Way has reported, many people and groups have come under fire for their handling of the crisis in Flint. An independent task force concluded earlier this year that primary responsibility lies with a state environmental agency called the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, but many others failed to take proper action as the lead levels rose.

"In modern society, when we turn on a faucet, we expect safe drinking water to flow out. As the evidence shows, this is no longer the case in Flint," Lawson wrote in his order. "The Flint water crisis has in effect turned back the clock to a time when people traveled to central water sources to fill their buckets and carry the water home."

A spokesperson for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder tells Michigan Radio that "the government's attorneys are reviewing the order."

If you're catching up on Flint's lead crisis, have a look at our timeline, which shows how it played out. And here's the full court order:

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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