Energy & Environment

Michigan agrees to $600M settlement with Flint residents

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The state of Michigan has reached a preliminary $600 million agreement with Flint residents after lead levels in their drinking water spiked following a switch in water sources.

Nearly 80 percent of the funds will be given to children in Flint, the majority being routed to those under 6 at first exposure — the highest risk group for the damaging effects of lead poisoning. Another nearly 20 percent will go to the city’s adult residents.

The agreement, one of many legal battles fought by residents since lead-tainted water began flowing through their pipes in 2014, follows 18 months of negotiations.

“The residents of Flint were victims of horrendous decisions by the state, its employees, and other defendants that have resulted in tragic and devastating consequences,” Ted Leopold, one of the court-appointed interim co-lead counsels for city residents, said in a statement.

“This public health disaster was the product of a complete disregard for the health and well-being of ordinary citizens. While we can never undo the damage that occurred to the citizens and community of Flint, we are pleased that today we were able to secure a measure of justice for the proposed class and the Flint community, and will continue to seek justice against the remaining defendants.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) acknowledged that the settlement “may not completely provide all that Flint needs.”

“Many will still feel justifiable frustration with a system and structure that at times is not adequate to fully address what has happened to people in Flint over the last six years. We hear and respect those voices and understand that healing Flint will take a long time, but our ongoing efforts and today’s settlement announcement are important steps in helping all of us move forward,” she said in a statement.

Flint residents began complaining about water quality issues shortly after the city switched its water source in April 2014, but city and state officials denied any problems until studies from Virginia Tech University researchers and Hurley Medical Center in Flint showed high lead levels in both water and children’s blood. Lead exposure has been tied to brain damage.

Criminal and civil cases have accused Michigan and Flint officials of being responsible for the crisis, but broader suits against other officials and agencies have been slowly proceeding.

The new settlement, which still must be approved by the court, is open to any Flint resident who consumed the tainted water for at least 21 days of the month any time after April of 2014. There were roughly 100,000 city residents during the time of exposure, including about 30,000 minors.

“Because the amount to be paid to each claimant will in part depend upon how many filed claims are verified, the precise amount to be paid to each claimant will not be known until the claims process is completed,” a summary of the settlement said, noting that those who can show they had elevated blood lead levels may receive larger payments. 

Residents who accept compensation will waive their right to sue the state, its agencies and current and former employees, but residents may also opt out if they prefer to pursue their own litigation.

The settlement includes special set asides, including $12 million for the city’s schools to provide extra assistance for students struggling after lead exposure.

It also sets aside $35 million in a trust for children whose parents don’t apply for the settlement now to do so on their own behalf once they reach adulthood.

“We’re very proud of that feature and it’s going to be very beneficial to many of the children,” Michael Pitt, another one of the plaintiff’s lawyers, said on a call with reporters.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) said that she hopes the settlement can be a “step forward” in the healing process.

“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. 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,” Nessel said in a statement.

“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.”

But many of the other cases against the state and federal government remain.

The Supreme Court in January ruled cases against state and local officials could proceed, and a case filed by residents against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also active.

Emails released in the case show an EPA employee had urged state and federal officials to take action.

Plaintiffs have argued that the EPA failed to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to address the health risks from the water or the inaction from other officials. Federal attorneys argue the EPA should be immune from the suit because Michigan law would not hold private individuals liable in similar circumstances.

“Stay with us because the battle is not over,” Trachelle Young, another lawyer for city residents, told reporters on Thursday.

— This report was updated at 12:20 p.m.

Tags Flint Gretchen Whitmer Lead Michigan Settlement Water

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