Flint Reaches $600M Settlement with State
The state of Michigan has reached a $600 million settlement with Flint residents for the state’s role in the city’s water crisis. A summary of the deal shows that nearly 80% of the funds will go to children and minors.
The settlement is one of the largest in the state’s history; it’s more than the $546 million that the state has paid out in settlements over the past 10 years.
History of the Water Crisis
Flint’s drinking water crisis began in April 2014, when the city chose to switch its water source from Detroit’s water supply to the Flint River as an interim solution while a pipeline to carry water from Lake Huron to the communities of the newly formed Karegnondi Water Authority was being built.
Water from the Flint River was not treated with corrosion-control agents, and reportedly began to corrode the city’s aging pipes. Drinking water in many homes was contaminated with lead, leading to a public health crisis.
The state did not publicly acknowledge the possibility of lead contamination in Flint until September 2015; the city switched back to pretreated water from Detroit in October 2015.
By January 2016, the National Guard and state police started delivering bottles of water door-to-door. By this point, the crisis was estimated to cost more that $1.5 billion to fix, and already had reports of 43 people having found elevated levels of lead in their blood.
In September, a $9 billion water infrastructure bill was passed in the U.S. Senate, with hundreds of millions allocated for improvements in Flint, as well as other cities with potential drinking-water contamination hazards. When broken down, the bill allocated $4.5 billion for 29 Army Corps of Engineers projects and $4.8 billion for work on water infrastructure nationwide.
More specifically, the bill opened $100 million in federal funds for grants to help states deal with emergency situations related to drinking water; at the time, Flint was the only municipality fitting the criteria for the grants.
Another $70 million was allocated for subsidized loans to help with infrastructure projects, bringing the total funds available for those loans to $700 million, freeing up $20 million to forgive loans to communities dealing with major public health crises related to drinking water.
By March 2017, Flint’s Mayor Karen Weaver wrote a letter to the EPA indicating that it would take a few more years for the city to be up and running with its on water treatment facility, a goal set for August 2019. The letter had been a response to the state announcing that at the end of January and beginning in March, they would no longer provide subsides for Flint residents to help pay their water bills, after recent testing showed that lead levels were returned to federal standards.
Through an internal investigation that concluded in October 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was reported to not have acted fast enough in its efforts to warn the residents of Flint about the lead contamination in its drinking water.
EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins said that EPA Region 5, which includes Michigan and other states in the Upper Midwest, “had the authority and sufficient information” to issue an emergency order in the Flint contamination matter as early as June 2015. However, the agency’s emergency order wasn’t issued until January 2016.
The report inspired much jurisdictional confusion, which required a review of state versus federal responsibility. In reference to the Safe Drinking Water Act Section 1431, the inspector general’s office concluded that the EPA did have the power to issue such an order if a state’s action on the issue was deemed insufficient.
In February 2018, a Genesee County water expert testified that he had issued a warning to not open the Flint Water Treatment plant, saying it was not yet properly equipped to produce clean water, and those on staff were not experienced enough to run the operation.
Genesee County Drain Commissioner’s Division Director John O’Brien noted that he, among other officials, tried to raise these concerns with city officials in early 2014. At the time, the facility wasn’t capable of producing drinkable water prior to the switch to the Flint River, noted The Detroit News.
In August 2018, another testimony was released by EPA official Miguel Del Toral, who blew the whistle on the lead-contamination crisis, stating that he told Michigan Department of Environmental Quality regulators in February 2015 that without anticorrosive treatment, the city’s drinking water would present a public-health threat.
The testimony that the federal agency brought up the lead issue more than six months before the state acknowledged the problem publicly came during a preliminary hearing for four former state officials facing felony charges related to the crisis.
A total of 13 state and local officials have faced charges that they ignored warnings and covered up potential contamination. Prosecutors have also alleged that local officials knew the water treatment plant that was being brought online to treat Flint’s water was insufficient, but that they went forward with the plan anyway.
In April of last year, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced that the city would be receiving $77.7 million in federal funding.
As part of a $140 million loan set to be allocated to East Lansing and Monroe counties in Flint, the funds are the remaining portion of a $120 million loan granted to the city in 2017.
At the time, the department said that moving forward, East Lansing will receive a $51.7 million loan that includes $2.1 million in “principal forgiveness funds” in order to make improvements to the collection system, build a new pump station and upgrade the Water Resource Recovery Facility.
Monroe County will also receive $10.2 million for upgrades and repairs necessary for the Bedford Township Wastewater Treatment Plant. The fund is also planned to be used for lineal sewer pipe rehabilitation.
“Protecting all Michiganders and their access to clean water is a priority for my administration to make sure nothing like this ever happens again,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in a statement.
“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.”
The settlement was agreed to after 18 months of negotiations. Preliminary specifications include:
After the settlement receives final approvals, the state will have contributed more than $1 billion to the relief and recovery efforts, according to the Attorney General’s office.
Defendants in this agreement included those who were part of the state government with the problems occurred, including former Gov. Rick Snyder; however, it did not extend to private entities involved.
"The litigation will continue against other defendants, including two private engineering firms charged with professional negligence—Veolia North America (Veolia) and Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam (LAN)," according to a statement from the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.
Separate litigation is also ongoing against the EPA.