Judge Approves $600M Flint Water Settlement
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced last week that a judge has granted final approval in a $600 million settlement regarding the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
“This historic settlement cannot undo the unimaginable hardship and heartbreaking health effects these families and children in Flint have endured,” Nessel said. “This ruling provides families with much needed compensation for the injuries they have suffered. I am proud of my team’s tireless work on behalf of the people of Flint.”
The final judgement was granted by Genesee County Circuit Court Chief Judge David J. Newblatt on March 21, following an opinion issued on March 17 by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which affirmed the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan’s approval of the settlement.
According to the release, the State of Michigan will pay $600 million, along with $20 million from the City of Flint, through their insurer; $5 million from McLaren Regional Medical Center; and $1.25 million from Rowe Professional Services Co. It will be the largest civil settlement in Michigan state history.
The preliminary agreement funding will reportedly be broken down as follows:
A Michigan judge has granted final approval of a $626 million settlement, putting Flint residents one step closer to being compensated for harm caused by the city’s drinking water crisis https://t.co/rvIf6xSC9P pic.twitter.com/NtelDLBDbV— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) March 21, 2023
The ruling follows a preliminary approval and three-day fairness hearing in 2021, which established the process through which Flint residents could indicate their intention to file eligible settlement claims that will be processed and paid by the claims administrator.
“The court's final approval of the settlement is an important step forward in the process of helping Flint heal and making amends to the families and individuals who have faced so much uncertainty. What happened in Flint should never have happened, and no amount of money can completely compensate people for what they have endured,” Governor Gretchen Whitmer said.
“We hope this settlement helps the healing continue as we keep working to make sure that people have access to clean water in Flint and communities all across Michigan.”
The full summary of the settlement terms can be found here.
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 by 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 deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, and causing 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 than $1.5 billion to fix, and had already been 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.
By March 2017, Flint’s former 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 subsidies for Flint residents to help pay their water bills, after recent testing showed that lead levels were returned to federal standards.
Roughly three years later, in December 2020, state officials announced that through a total of $120 million in federal and state funding, more than 9,700 lead service lines were replaced in Flint, with less than 500 service lines remaining to be checked.
Through an internal investigation that concluded in October 2016, the EPA 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.
Former 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, 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.
Other Recent Settlement
At the end of last year, Andrews & Newman, one of the two engineering firms accused of negligence in the Flint water crisis, agreed to an undisclosed settlement, following a mistrial in the case in August.
The settlement for the civil lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of four children who claimed they suffered brain damage because of their exposure to city water, was sealed in federal court in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to protect the children “from being exposed to predators, exploitation, unwarranted anger, jealousy and attention,” Attorney Corey Stern’s filing states.
The lawsuit, which alleged the companies failed to strongly recommend the treatment of Flint water to make it less corrosive to lead pipes throughout the distribution system and failed to warn residents about the potential for elevated levels of lead in their water, was settled confidentially under seal on behalf of one of the children in the case.
The sealed settlement was approved by U.S. District Court Judge Judith E. Levy, separated in four orders filed Dec. 20, identifying the children only by their initials and saying the agreement negotiated by their attorneys is fair and in the best interest of each child.
A spokesperson for Veolia said in an email to The Journal that there was “no finding of fault against the company during the first bellwether trial despite the best efforts of Corey Stern as VNA had no role in causing, prolonging, or worsening the Flint water crisis, this fact won’t ever change.”
A civil class-action lawsuit is also reportedly pending in federal court.