Flint Legal Battle Ends With Michigan Agreeing to Replace Thousands of Water Lines

by | March 29, 2017

By Tresa Baldas and Paul Egan

Three year's after Flint's water supply became contaminated with lead in a crisis that made international headlines, a federal judge today approved a settlement in which the state will pay $87 million for the City of Flint to identify and replace at least 18,000 unsafe water lines by 2020.

The deal also requires the state to hold an additional $10 million in reserve, in case it is needed, bringing the total cost as high as $97 million. And it requires the state to pay $895,000 to the plaintiffs who brought the 2016 lawsuit, to cover their litigation costs. On the flip side, the plaintiffs won't get door-to-door delivery of bottled water in Flint to the extent they had requested.

"In my view the settlement agreement is fair,  adequate, reasonable and consistent with the public interest and it furthers the objectives of the safe water drinking act," U.S. District Judge David Lawson said from the bench. "I believe it is in the best interest of the citizens of Flint and the citizens of the sate of Michigan."

In approving the settlement, Lawson dismissed the lawsuit that was filed by several plaintiffs: Concerned Pastors for Social Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Michigan ACLU and Flint resident Melissa Mays.

Under the settlement , they will  get a schedule for water line replacements while the state gets a schedule for weaning Flint off the community resource stations where bottled water, water filters and filter replacement cartridges are now distributed free of charge.

The centers could close as early as Sept. 1, subject to test results on Flint tap water.

Some -- but not all -- of the money the state allocates can come from funding approved by the federal government.

"This settlement continues the state's commitment to providing the resources necessary for the residents of Flint to recover from the crisis, including health care services, nutritional food and replacement of lead service lines throughout the city," Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said in a news release.

Flint's water crisis began in  April 2014, when a state-appointed emergency manager switched the city's drinking water supply from Lake Huron water treated in Detroit to Flint River water treated at the Flint Water Treatment Plant. It was a temporary, cost-saving measure, but turned out to be a disastrous mistake. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has acknowledged it failed to require needed corrosion-control chemicals as part of the treatment process.

Corrosive water caused lead to leach from from joints, pipes and fixtures, causing a spike in toxic lead levels in the blood of Flint children and other residents.

Flint switched back to Detroit water in October 2015, but some risk remains because of damage to the city's water distribution infrastructure.

Here's what the settlement calls for:

--The city, compensated by the state, agrees to determine the composition of lines running from the street into at least 18,000 households and properties, and replace with copper those made of lead or galvanized steel, at no cost to the homeowners.

--The agreement calls for replacement of 6,000 lines by Jan. 1, 2018, and at least 6,000 more lines each of the two following years, with all lines covered by the agreement replaced by Jan. 1, 2020.

--The agreement does not call for door-to-door bottled water delivery, which the plaintiffs had sought, but calls for residents to be able to call the 211 city phone number and receive free water deliveries within 24 hours. The service can be discontinued if water monitoring for the six-month period ending June 30 is below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "action level" for lead, the agreement says.

--The agreement requires the state and city to continue to operate at least nine community water resource sites, where residents can pick up bottled water, water filters and cartridges, until May 1. It permits the state to close three centers between May 1 and June 1, but only if demand has dropped off, and close up to two additional centers between June 1 and July 1, again if demand has dropped off.

--The state won't be required to operate any water distribution centers after Sept. 1, provided water monitoring for the six-month period ending June 30 is below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "action level" for lead.

--The state will expand its program of water filter education, installation and maintenance. The state will make its best efforts to have at least 90 filter education specialists at work throughout the city, eight hours per day, Monday through Saturday, with specialists also available on Sundays by appointment and for follow-up.

--The state will advertise the work of the filter specialists on TV, radio and other media, including ads in Spanish.

--The state will provide the city with filter replacement cartridges so that residents will have free filter cartridges to use for one year after the replacement of their lead or galvanized steel water lines.

--The state will continue its Medicaid expansion for Flint residents -- covering pregnant women and children younger than  21 up to 400% of the poverty level -- through March 2021.

--The state will continue elevated blood level case management services, for children with elevated blood levels, plus other services for children and nutrition services, through September 2018.

--Abandoned households are not covered by the agreement, though any household with an active water account on the effective date of the agreement is covered, even if the water bill is overdue.

--The agreement calls for extensive water monitoring following the line replacements to ensure the water is safe to drink, including the use of a third-party independent monitor. It also calls for extensive public  reporting.

Flint resident and activist Melissa Mays, a mother who was a key player in the lawsuit and has been at the forefront of Flint's water crisis, said the settlement was a testament to the strength of the people of Flint.

"Flint proved that even while poisoned ... we are not just victims. We are fighters," said Mays, noting a lot of work still lies ahead.

"While this does not fix everything, it's a good start," Mays said, stressing the immediate priority will be to get the lead pipes out of the ground.

And that will finally happen, she said, because there's a court order saying it has to happen, and the plaintiffs will be there to make sure it does.

"We have oversight. We get to be there every step of the way," Mays said, adding: "Until I get that 'all clear' in my house, that trust won't be built until the pipes are out of the ground."

Allen Overton, who spoke on behalf of a coalition of pastors involved in the lawsuit, praised the settlement for finally getting Flint the legal boost it needed to get clean water back. But, he stressed that it's not a cure-all.

"It does not resolve everything. We will have lots of rebuilding to do," he said. "We are not done fighting."

And while Overton did lash out at the state for its past actions, saying "they told us our water was safe when they knew it wasn't,"  he said it's time for the bitterness to end.

"I don't have time to beat up on the governor," Overton said. "We're past the phase of fighting."

(c)2017 the Detroit Free Press