Legal Victory Offers Relief for Flint

Settlement calls for $97 million to replace 18,000 service lines by 2020.

For a change, there’s good news about Flint, Michigan. Almost three years after the city began pumping water from its namesake river as a source of drinking water, help is on the way for a lead crisis that poisoned thousands of residents.

On March 28, a federal judge at the U.S. District Court for Michigan’s eastern district approved a three-year, $97 million agreement that requires the state and city to identify and replace some 18,000 service lines free of charge by the year 2020.

“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 state of Michigan.”

Generally speaking, the dollars will be used to address three main priorities:

  • Set an established timeline to replace the lead-tainted service lines, which will continue to fall under federal court supervision and monitoring.
  • Continue to distribute bottled water to residents unable to access clean drinking water.
  • Fund health care programs for residents and, in particular, children affected by lead poisoning.

The news comes as many residents still do not trust the government to tell them the truth about the quality of the city’s water.

Flint’s water problem began when officials switched to the river in 2014 in order to save money, but failed to implement mandatory corrosion controls. This damaged the piping and caused lead to leach into the city’s water system.

Making a grave public health situation even worse, government officials routinely downplayed the residents’ complaints about color, order and taste, until elevated levels of lead detected in the town’s children made the issue impossible to ignore.

The water contamination also has been linked to the deaths of 12 people from Legionnaires’ disease.

To this day, thousands of Flint residents are still forced to rely on bottled water and home water filters for drinking, cooking and bathing.

Considering this acrimony, it’s no mystery to learn that the money comes by way of settling a lawsuit filed last year by a coalition of religious, environmental and civil rights activists that alleged Flint water was not safe to drink because state and city officials were violating the national Safe Drinking Water Act.

“This is a win for the people of Flint,” Melissa Mays, a plaintiff in the case and one of the parents who first sounded the alarm about Flint’s water, said in a statement. “When the government fails to uphold democracy and protect our rights to clean water, we have to stand up and fight. The greatest lesson I’ve learned from Flint’s water crisis is that change only happens when you get up and make your voice heard.”

Actually, the settlement isn’t the only good news coming out of Vehicle City. The court agreement comes barely a week after the EPA formally awarded a $100 million grant to Michigan to fund upgrades to Flint’s outdated water system.

While a portion of those Congressional funds will go toward ripping out old piping that contributed to the city’s lead crisis, Flint also intends to spend a large portion of the grant money modernizing its water treatment plant, replacing meters and fixing distribution mains.

Timeline and terms

Considering the beleaguered city has only been able to replace service lines in 800 homes to date, the terms of the settlement set a rapid pace.

By next New Year’s Day, the government must replace 6,000 water lines. After that, at least 6,000 more new lines in each of the following two years must be finished.

The agreement also guarantees services such as on-demand bottled water delivery within 24 hours, increased availability of water filter consultants to residents, Medicaid expansions through March 2021 and independent monitoring of the water lines after their re-installment by the state.

Of the $97 million, the settlement dictates that the state put $10 million in escrow to pay for cost overruns.

Here are the specifics of the settlement:

• 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 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 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 EPA’s “action level” for lead, the agreement says.

• 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. EPA’s “action level” for lead.

• 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 will continue its Medicaid expansion for Flint residents covering pregnant women and children younger than 21 up to 400 percent 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.   

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