Over the past several years, thousands of residents of Flint, Michigan, have been fighting for justice after contaminated water was pumped into their homes in what became known as the Flint Water Crisis. Now, a federal judge has approved a $626 million settlement for residents, the largest restitution amount ever reached in the state of Michigan.
More than 40,000 people have requested part of the settlement, which shows the immense scale of the catastrophe and its impact over the past several years. If all claims were equally treated, then each person would receive around $15,000. But district judge Judith Levy said that the money will be apportioned based on proof of injury and younger claimants will be given priority, since children are particularly harmed by lead poisoning.
“This is a historic and momentous day for the residents of Flint, who will finally begin to see justice served,” said Ted Leopold, one of the attorneys for Flint residents.
The settlement is the latest attempt to right the wrongs of what was essentially a mass poisoning of Flint residents by state officials and could add to the deterrent effect that those affected have been working for. As the consequences of the Flint Water Crisis continue to unfold, advocates want to make sure that no other community goes through what they experienced. After all, their plight is emblematic of a larger crisis happening all across the US, where millions of aging lead pipes represent a health threat. Globally, 785 million people lack access to clean water.
“Although this is a significant victory for Flint, we have a way to go in stopping Americans from being systematically poisoned in their own homes, schools, and places of work,” said Corey Stern, a counsel for the plaintiffs, in a statement, according to the Guardian.
A decade ago, officials in Michigan were looking for ways to save money. At the time, Flint’s water was being piped in from Detroit and a decision was made in 2014 to switch the water supply to the Flint River because it would be cheaper to transport to homes, even though it was a notoriously contaminated body of water. Almost immediately, residents began to report health problems after drinking their tap water.
For months, the city refused to take the health threat seriously and the number of people being poisoned by lead and other factors steadily rose. Eventually, it was determined that industrial cleaning agents had corroded pipes, causing lead and other pathogens to leak into people’s tap water.
Children with developing brains faced potentially lifelong harm after prolonged exposure to lead, which is a neurotoxin. An outbreak of legionnaire’s disease from the tainted water killed 12 people and poisoned more than 90. An additional 115 other deaths could be linked to the outbreak as well, according to PBS.
To this day, the city’s water infrastructure has yet to be fully replaced. Even residents with new systems have trouble trusting their tap water and often resort to bottled water for their daily needs. After being gaslit for so many years by city and state officials, it could take a long time to repair trust, advocates say. The Flint Water Crisis highlights persistent racial inequities in the US. Investigations found that the crisis wouldn't have happened were it not for systemic racism, which influenced the decisions that led to the contamination and contributed to the delay in addressing it.
Efforts to hold state officials responsible for the poisoning finally culminated in sentencing earlier this year when former Governor Rick Snyder and eight officials were charged with 42 counts of wrongdoing.
The new federal settlement acts as another form of closure.
“Today is a day where there is actual accountability for the Flint residents,” Trachelle Young, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Democracy Now. “This is really a result because we, as a community, stood up. We, as community activists; we, as pastors and ministers of justice; we, as residents, as concerned citizens; we, as parents — we came together and said that we are not going to sit here and allow them to treat us as if we don’t matter.”