This is a developing story. Last update was Thursday August 20 at 5:17 p.m.
Michigan will pay $600 million to compensate Flint residents whose health was damaged by lead-tainted drinking water after the city heeded state regulators’ advice not to treat it properly.
State Attorney General Dana Nessel confirmed the preliminary settlement Thursday morning, after the details had been leaked to news outlets late Wednesday.
Stateside spoke with Michael Pitt, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit against the state over the Flint water crisis. Listen to that conversation above.
The settlement is intended to resolve all legal actions against the state for its role in a disaster that made the impoverished, majority-Black city a nationwide symbol of governmental mismanagement.
The offices of Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have been negotiating for more than 18 months with lawyers for thousands of Flint residents who have filed suits against the state.
“Flint residents have endured more than most, and to draw out the legal back-and-forth even longer would have achieved nothing but continued hardship." Nessel said in a statement. "This settlement focuses on the children and the future of Flint, and the State will do all it can to make this a step forward in the healing process for one of Michigan’s most resilient cities. Ultimately, by reaching this agreement, I hope we can begin the process of closing one of the most difficult chapters in our State’s history and writing a new one that starts with a government that works on behalf of all of its people.”
Nessel took to Twitter to clarify that the settlement does not impact the ongoing federal investigation into criminal actions by former Gov. Rick Snyder and other officials.
To be clear, the Flint settlement absolves the State of MI and its public officials of civil responsibility. Solicitor General Hammoud and Pros. Worthy continue their investigation into criminal actions by state actors and the quest for justice and accountability is not over.
— Dana Nessel (@dananessel) August 20, 2020
Flint switched its water source from the city of Detroit to the Flint River to save money in 2014, while under control of a state-appointed emergency manager. State environmental regulators advised Flint not to apply corrosion controls to the water, which became contaminated by lead from aging pipes without those corrosion controls.
Residents of the city quickly began complaining that the water was discolored and had a bad taste and smell. They blamed it for rashes, hair loss and other health concerns, but local and state officials insisted it was safe.
Researchers with Virginia Tech University reported in summer 2015 that samples of Flint water had abnormally high lead levels. Shortly afterward, a group of doctors announced that local children had high levels of lead in their blood and urged Flint to stop using water from the river.
Then-Governor Rick Snyder eventually acknowledged the problem, accepted the resignation of his environmental chief and pledged to aid the city, which resumed using Detroit water.
Residents used bottled water for drinking and household needs for more than a year. Researchers said in late 2016 that lead was no longer detectable in many homes.
Lawsuits against the state are being overseen by U.S. District Judge Judith Levy, who would have to approve the settlement.
Under the deal, the state would establish a $600 million fund and Flint residents could file claims for compensation. The amount awarded per applicant would be based on how badly they were harmed, the attorney told AP.
It calls for devoting 80% of the money to people who were under age 18 during the period when Flint was using river water, the attorney said.
If approved, the settlement would push state spending on the Flint water crisis over $1 billion. Michigan already has pumped more than $400 million into replacing water pipes, purchasing filters and bottled water, children’s health care and other assistance.
Other suits are pending against Flint, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and private consultants that advised the city on water issues.
Another proposed settlement in a separate but connected lawsuit will give Flint kids access to more and better special education services.
That settlement also still needs a judge’s approval. But it would take at least $9 million dollars out of the larger Flint lawsuit settlement to start a Flint Water Crisis Special Education Fund.
Attorneys behind the case say these types of improved educational services are the only real way to help children exposed to lead overcome that harm.
Jeree Brown was a plaintiff in the lawsuit. She says she had to fight to get her autistic son any kind of special education services in Flint schools.
ACLU attorney Kristin Totten read a statement from Brown, who says she’s pleased with the settlement.
“No parent of a child with a disability should have to go through what my family did to get the basic supports that their child needs, especially in Flint where our children were poisoned by lead.”
Gregory Little is an attorney with the Education Law Center who worked on the case.
“This settlement is groundbreaking in that it provides these children with the resources that they need going forward.”
Not everyone thinks the settlement will make much of a difference.
LaQueela Hudson’s son, age seven now, was just one year old when Flint made the switch to Flint River water.
"He was diagnosed with -- they are calling it autism, but it has the same symptoms as lead poisoning," she says. "He developed mental problems, behavior issues, issues with his skin, all types of things."
Hudson says she will file a claim on behalf of her son. But she figures he might get, what, a few thousand dollars?
"That’s not going to compensate for what he’s going to suffer the rest of his life."
Attorneys say there’s a mid-October deadline to decide exactly how the funds will be disbursed. They hope to see the funds placed in a trust as soon as the first quarter of 2021.