The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which first began nearly seven years ago when the city switched its water supply systems, finally might be nearing a close. United States District Court Judge Judith Levy has granted preliminary approval of a proposed partial settlement of $641.25 million to settle the pending class action lawsuits against the state of Michigan and other defendants. The plaintiffs are composed of thousands of Flint residents who have been exposed to lead and other contaminants from Flint’s water supply, all of whom are entitled to participate in the settlement program. Once finalized, this will be the largest class action settlement in Michigan’s history.
A Timeline of Flint’s Water Crisis
For many Flint residents, the proposed settlement represents a conclusion to a long-fought battle with the state of Michigan. In 2013, in an effort to cut costs, the city stopping piping treated water for its residents from Detroit, and instead, elected to pump water from the Flint River—a known unofficial waste disposal site. The water was not treated and traveled through aging pipes, resulting in lead-contaminated water reaching the homes of Flint residents.
By April 2014, residents began questioning why the water from their faucets looked, smelled, and tasted strange. This coincided with elevated blood-lead levels of Flint children, as well as an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed 12 people—the third-largest outbreak of the disease in United States history. Studies confirmed that the citywide lead levels in its water had spiked to alarming amounts, along with findings that the water contained fecal coliform bacteria. The latter problem was addressed by the city by adding chlorine to its water, which resulted in a new issue: elevated levels of a cancer-causing chemical which is a by-product of water chlorination.
By early 2016, Flint residents and activist groups banded together to sue the city and state officials for the failure to provide safe water. Later that year, a federal court ordered Michigan and the City of Flint to ensure all of its residents had access to safe drinking water—even if it meant delivering bottled water to the home. In 2017, city and state officials entered into a settlement agreement which promised they would remove Flint’s toxic water lines by 2020. Reportedly, the replacement of the lead pipes is at least 85% complete but delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though corrective measures to the city’s water supply are badly needed, they do not address the thousands of residents already affected by lead poisoning and Legionnaires’ disease. The settlement would allow for monetary damages for those exposed to Flint water during the specified time periods, which include adults, children, property owners, renters, and business owners. Individual plaintiffs, as well as class members, would be able to qualify. The amount of money each plaintiff receives is based on “objective factors such as age, exposure to the water, test results, specific identified injuries, property ownership or lease, payment of water bills, and commercial losses.”
The settling defendants are comprised of the State of Michigan and its officials, the City of Flint, its emergency managers and employees, as well as McLaren hospitals and Rowe Professional Services Co., which provided engineering work during the water switch. The bulk of the settlement—$600 million—will come from the state and nearly 80% of the payments will be awarded to those who were children at the time of the crisis.
Supporters of the settlement assert that payments to children will be an investment in their future. However, some adult plaintiffs have voiced concern over the amounts of their potential payouts. Under the proposed settlement, adults who had developed Legionnaires’ disease may only receive $6,500 or less. Families of those who died due to the disease may receive between $300,000 and $1.5 million. Plaintiffs in other Flint water cases have argued that payouts for Legionnaires’ disease are “too low and unknown.” Others object to the use of bone scans to determine proof of lead exposure since such testing is not readily available in Flint.
Flint residents may register to participate in the settlement program by March 29, 2021, and will have until August 26, 2021 to submit the required documentation to support their claims. According to the Attorney General’s office, the payment process may be substantially complete before the end of 2021, assuming the court approves the final settlement.
The Future of Flint
As Judge Levy recognizes in her decision, the partial settlement “does not represent the end of the Flint Water Crisis litigation,” nor does it resolve the pending cases, with the first round of bellwether trials scheduled in June 2021. “Litigation has its benefits, but also its limitations, and the preliminary approval of this settlement does not affect or preclude other avenues of redress. This litigation—however it concludes—need not be the final chapter of this remarkable story,” the court order states. Judge Levy will be conducting a fairness hearing on July 12, 2021, to determine whether the settlement is fair, adequate, and reasonable before issuing a final ruling. Litigation also continues against other private companies that were involved in the water supply switch, as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Overall, although the settlement is not perfect nor is it finalized, it is a step in the direction of closure for those affected by the Flint water crisis.