The state of Michigan will pay Flint residents $600 million to settle lawsuits brought against it for failing to protect residents from lead contamination and other water problems caused by the city's switch to Flint River for drinking water in 2014. At the time, the city was under emergency state management as a result of its financial crisis. When citizens began reporting problems with their water, the state's regulators were slow to take action on the contamination.
"If money is how government expresses sorrow for its crimes—this is a big apology," says Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech civil and environmental engineering professor and water expert who went with a team of students to Flint in 2015 to bring attention to the problem. Edwards was ENR's 2017 Award of Excellence Winner for his work during the crisis.
Since the crisis was brought to light, the city switched back to using water piped in from Detroit. Edwards’ first sample in one home in 2015 showed a lead level of 13,200 parts per billion. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency action level is 15 ppb, and water with lead above 5,000 ppb is considered hazardous waste. No level is considered safe. Edwards publicly called out the government agencies that failed to implement corrosion control.
The state's lawsuit against engineering consultants Veolia North America and Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam (LAN), who were engineering consultants to Flint at the time, will continue, the state's attorney general said Aug. 10.
"We welcome the news that the state has finally accepted responsibility for causing the Flint water crisis," said Wayne B. Mason, LAN's lead counsel, in a statement. "Plaintiffs are regrettably continuing to pursue the lawsuit against LAN, despite the fact that our advice was not followed and we had no responsibility for providing water treatment and plant operation services for the city of Flint at the time the state and the city made the change to the Flint River.
"The implications of this case are far reaching and present a risk to all consulting firms because plaintiffs are asserting that an engineering firm can be held liable for consulting work performed for a government agency, even if the firm’s recommendations are not followed or ignored," Mason added.
Mason said LAN will continue to defend itself against what he called baseless claims by the state. A senior executive at Veolia said the company is reviewing the settlement. Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) stressed that the settlement was an end to the story of the Flint crisis. Through June 2019, Michigan was the subject of 79 Flint-related lawsuits.
The agreement requires that the state pay the $600 million into a qualified settlement fund for the benefit of individuals, property owners and businesses who claimed they were injured by water distributed by Flint. The agreement specifies that about 80 percent of the settlement fund will be spent on "claims of children who were minors when first exposed to the Flint River water, with a large majority of that amount to be paid for claims of children age 6 and younger." Additionally, according to the agreement, 18 percent of settlement funds will be dedicated to claims of adults and for property damage, while roughly 1 percent will go toward claims for business losses.
"What happened in Flint should have never happened, and financial compensation with this settlement is just one of the many ways we can continue to show our support for the city of Flint and its families," Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) said in a statement. At the time of the crisis, Rick Snyder (R) was Michigan's governor.
A spokesperson for Whitmer could not answer where the $600 million would come from and if it would require new appropriations from the state legislature. The 2020 state budget included $120 million to clean up drinking water through investments in water infrastructure.
"Due to the complexity of the settlement, the funding details are still being worked out and will be described specifically in the settlement documents that are being finalized in the next 45-60 days," said Tiffany Brown, press secretary for Whitmer.
The settlement agreement must be approved by U.S. District Court judges. Attorney General Nessel said her office expected to release more details of the settlement within 45 days.
"By reaching this agreement," Nessel says, "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."