Six years after residents in Flint, Michigan began relying on their polluted local river as a drinking water source at the behest of Republican state officials looking to save money, the state on Thursday announced details of an historic $600 million settlement, reached after 18 months of negotiations.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel noted that the settlement still has to be approved by a federal judge, but revealed that once finalized, the state would set up a claims process through which tens of thousands of Flint residents could receive compensation.
"For a lifetime of suffering and death for many families, this doesn't seem like justice."
—Lynn Shon, New York City public school teacher
After administrative and attorneys' fees are accounted for, 80% of the settlement money is meant for children who were under the age of 18 when the Flint water crisis began in April 2014, when the state switched the city's water supply from Detroit to the Flint River. Immediately, residents in the largely-Black community raised alarm over the smell, taste, and color of the water, which was soon linked to high levels of lead in local children's blood samples. The polluted water was officially linked to 12 deaths from Legionnaire's disease, but an investigation by PBS Frontline concluded that the death toll was far higher.
Nearly two-thirds of the amount set aside for minors will go to children ages six and under, who are especially at risk for brain and nervous system damage as the result of lead exposure. Children will not need to prove that they've suffered an injury in order to receive compensation, but adults will need to provide proof that they were harmed.
Reaction to the news of the pending settlement varied among Flint residents. Gina Luster, a co-founder of the local activist group Flint Rising who suffered health problems and a resulting job loss due to the water crisis, expressed satisfaction that the state has acknowledged wrongdoing.
"This is a huge step forward that shows some accountability for the wrongdoings that have been done to Flint's residents," Luster told The Daily Beast. "When you keep applying enough pressure to a pipe, it's bound to burst, and I think Flint residents know that."
But Nakiya Wakes, who suffered four pregnancy losses in the months after her drinking water became polluted with lead and other bacteria, told The Daily Beast she was skeptical of the settlement after six years of seeing the government fail to deliver justice to her and her neighbors:
Money has been flowing into Flint for years, she said, but none of it has gone to the victims. Instead it's landed with nonprofits and other charitable entities that are often run by people who don't live in the city.
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And, regardless, there are issues and anguish that money can't fix, Wakes said: "I've lost four babies that no amount of money can compensate me for."
Corey Stern, who represented residents during the mediation process, said children under six could receive payments "in the mid six figures," as the payouts for children will be placed in an account that will accrue interest. They'll be able to access the money when they turn 18, so payouts for the youngest children could increase significantly until then.
The settlement is larger than the state of Michigan has paid in court judgements over the last 10 years combined. Nessel noted that while the settlement would absolve the state of civil responsibility for the Flint water crisis, Michigan's "investigation into criminal actions by state actors and the quest for justice and accountability is not over."
Some critics wrote on social media that the settlement is insufficient, considering the damage done to the people of Flint during a crisis in which the number of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood doubled—and even tripled in some parts of the city—and the fact that state officials spent more than a year ignoring the community's concerns about their water source.
Don't be fooled-- $600 million is less than 0.1% of what billionaires made during #COVID19. Not sure how the numbers will work out for #FlintWaterCrisis victims, but for a lifetime of suffering and death for many families, this doesn't seem like justice. https://t.co/mLi7wgFRCK
— Lynn Shon (@lynnshon) August 20, 2020
I’m told this is nowhere near final. If I were Flint residents, I would toss back and tell them we can START negotiatoons at $1 billion https://t.co/dds94p1FFh
— Jordan (@JordanChariton) August 20, 2020
"Much of the damage done to Flint and its children is irreversible," tweeted Rolling Stone journalist Jamil Smith. "Such is the nature of lead poisoning. If this helps, good. I'll leave it to Flint families to say as much. But you can't buy back trust in government—or the water coming out of your faucet."