LANSING, Mich. – A $600 million deal between the state of Michigan and Flint residents who were harmed by lead-tainted water is a step toward making amends for a disaster that upended life in the poor, majority-Black city, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Thursday.
State officials and lawyers for Flint residents announced the settlement, which Attorney General Dana Nessel said likely would be the largest in Michigan history, with tens of thousands of potential claimants. It's designed primarily to benefit children, who were most vulnerable to the debilitating effects of lead that fouled drinking water after Flint switched its source to save money in 2014 while under supervision of a state financial manager.
City workers followed state environmental officials' advice not to use anti-corrosive additives. Without those treatments, water from the Flint River scraped lead from aging pipes and fixtures, contaminating tap water.
The disaster made Flint a nationwide symbol of governmental mismanagement, with residents of the city of nearly 100,000 lining up for bottled water and parents fearful their children had suffered permanent harm. A criminal investigation that has resulted in only misdemeanor no-contest pleas so far was resumed last year.
“What happened in Flint should have never happened, and financial compensation with this settlement is just one of the many ways we can continue to show our support for the city of Flint and its families," Whitmer, a Democrat, said.
Several judges must approve the agreement, which is intended to resolve all claims against the state. Residents can decline to take part and file separate lawsuits, but attorneys involved in the negotiations said they would urge their clients to participate.
"It’s not perfect. But it is fair, it’s reasonable, it’s equitable,” said attorney Michael Pitt.
Suits also have been filed against the city, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and two engineering consulting firms. They could join the state settlement by contributing agreed-on sums to the $600 million compensation fund.
The agreement establishes a process for submitting claims. Amounts awarded will depend on the number of claims and the extent of damage a person sustained between April 25, 2014, and July 31, 2016.
Nearly 80% will be distributed to claimants who were minors, with the largest share — 64.5% — going to those who were 6 or younger when first exposed to the contaminated water. About 30,000 children lived in Flint at the time.
Lead can harm people at any age but is especially dangerous to children, potentially damaging the brain and nervous system and causing learning and behavior problems.
Some 18% will go to adults and the rest to businesses or other specified relief programs.
Corey Stern, an attorney who represents about 2,600 minors, said many children likely would receive payments in the “high-five to low-six-figure” range, with those badly harmed getting even more. He described it as “the largest single settlement involving lead poisoned children in our nation's history.”
Melissa Mays sued the state on behalf of her three sons, saying they have had medical and educational difficulties because of lead exposure.
“You can’t fix this with money," Mays, a social worker, said. "You can help make our lives a little less horrid because in no way, shape or form should traumatized victims be scraping by just to survive month to month. In no way is this going to replace my kids’ brains, their lungs, their livers, their learning ability.”
At least $9 million will be earmarked to settle a case involving kids who weren't being provided with special education services, said Gregory Little, an attorney with the Education Law Center.
Flint had long purchased drinking water from Detroit, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) south, but switched to the Flint River in April 2014. It was among money-saving measures recommended by an emergency manager appointed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder.
Residents complained that the water was discolored and tasted and smelled bad. 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. A group of doctors subsequently announced that local children had high lead levels in their blood.
Snyder, a Republican, eventually acknowledged the problem, accepted the resignation of his environmental chief and pledged to aid the city, which resumed using Detroit water.
Many 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.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician who led the investigation that discovered the high lead levels in children, said it will take decades to restore trust.
"I am hopeful this settlement serves as a reminder of Flint’s lessons: where the perfect storm of environmental injustice, indifferent bureaucracy, lost democracy and austerity, compounded by decades of racism and deindustrialization, left a city powerless and forgotten," she said.
Flesher reported from Traverse City, Michigan. AP reporter Ed White in Detroit and researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that pleas to criminal charges were no-contest instead of guilty.