The state of Michigan announced Thursday it has agreed to pay $600 million to Flint residents whose health was afflicted by lead-tainted drinking water in a crisis that spurred a class-action lawsuit and became emblematic of how poorer, majority-Black communities can suffer under government mismanagement.
The offices of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel said they have been negotiating for more than 18 months with lawyers for thousands of Flint residents who have filed suits against the state in the wake of the scandal, which began in April 2014.
Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last year, said in a statement that the money may not be enough in some people's minds and "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."
She added 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."
Nessel, a Democrat, said the majority of the settlement would go toward resolving claims that benefit children, who were found through testing to have elevated lead levels in their blood. Exposure to lead can cause behavior problems and learning disabilities in young children, health officials warned.
Under the deal, the state is establishing the $600 million fund and Flint residents can file claims for compensation. The amount awarded per applicant would be based on how badly they were harmed.
It calls for devoting 80 percent of the money to people who were younger than 18 during the period when Flint was using river water, Nessel said.
"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," she 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 and writing a new one that starts with a government that works on behalf of all of its people."
Trachelle Young, a former Flint city attorney and resident who filed a lawsuit in 2015 in response to the lead in the drinking water, told reporters that the settlement is "fair and reasonable," but stressed that it is partial because she believes "there is more to come and there is more of a price to pay." Other suits are pending against Flint, the Environmental Protection Agency and private consultants that advised the city on water issues.
"We were fighting a machine," Young said of the state's previous pushback to the lawsuits. "They were standing their ground, and today is the day where there's actual accountability for Flint residents."
The water crisis in Flint was only the latest for a community that saw its financial fortunes sink with the downturn of the American auto industry.
In 2014, Flint had switched from Detroit's water system to the Flint River as part of a cost-cutting move while under the state's emergency financial management. Officials had estimated the cash-strapped city would save about $5 million in less than two years because of the change.
Tapping from the Flint River was supposed to be an interim source until the city could join a new system getting water from Lake Huron.
But residents complained about the taste, smell and appearance of the water, while officials maintained the water met safety standards.
In summer 2015, researchers with Virginia Tech University reported that samples of Flint water had abnormally high lead levels. Shortly afterward, a group of doctors announced that local children had high levels of lead in their blood and urged Flint to stop using water from the river.
Then-Gov. Rick Snyder eventually acknowledged the problem, accepted the resignation of his environmental chief and pledged to aid the city, which resumed using Detroit water.
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.
Lawsuits against the state are being overseen by U.S. District Judge Judith Levy, who would have to approve the settlement.
If the state's settlement receives final court approval, it would push state spending on the Flint water crisis to over $1 billion and is likely to be the largest settlement in Michigan state government history, Nessel's office said.
Michigan already has pumped more than $400 million into replacing water pipes, purchasing filters and bottled water, children's health care and other assistance.
Michael Pitt, a court-appointed interim co-lead counsel in the class-action lawsuit, said the legal team is endorsing the settlement deal and hopes that Levy will approve it.
"Although it's not perfect overall, it's very good and it's a fair settlement and we believe wholeheartedly it's in the best interest of the Flint community," he told reporters.
Pitt said the claims from affected residents would be reviewed "without any discrimination, no favoritism" and with an "opt-out" measure, meaning residents do not have to be part of the compensation plan and can still pursue other legal options against the state if they so choose.
Other terms and conditions of the settlement must still be worked out within a 45-day window, he added, at which point other details of the deal will be made public and claims can begin being filed.