By Kathleen Gray
Aug. 20, 2020
The settlement still needs federal court approval, but Flint residents were being cautiously optimistic after the drawn-out crisis: “I just want it to be over.”
FLINT, Mich. — Since contaminated water began running from taps in Flint six years ago, perhaps the biggest worry was the lasting effect on the Michigan city’s 25,000 children.
Along with skin rashes and illnesses, some children showed elevated levels of lead in their blood, raising the alarming prospect of irreversible damage to their developing brains. In the schools, requests for special education or behavioral interventions began rising.
As the state of Michigan on Thursday announced a $600 million settlement for the victims of the water crisis that upended Flint, the deal was another reminder of the damage and debt to thousands of children: Almost 80 percent of the settlement will go to people who were younger than 18 during the crisis, the officials said, and much of that will go to those who were younger than 7.
Around Flint, residents said that the settlement, which still needs a federal judge’s approval, felt like the start of hopeful news. Still, after all they have been through, some had lingering doubts. They questioned how long the process of deciding who qualifies for payment may take. And they said they were painfully aware that no amount of money can undo the exposure their children had to tainted water between 2014 and 2016.
Ms. Williams, 43, said that her 4-year-old son had experienced developmental delays with speech and toilet training, and that she feared that the water she drank while pregnant might have played a role. He was only 2.6 pounds at birth, she said, and struggled to survive.
The water lines in her home have been replaced, as have the lines in most homes in Flint, officials say. But Ms. Williams, like many people who live in Flint, continues to use bottled water for drinking and cooking. “I just don’t trust the water,” she said.
The water began turning strange colors and smelling odd in 2014, after the city switched residents’ water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The city, home to about 95,000 residents — 40 percent of whom fall below the federal poverty line — had fallen into fiscal distress. While under oversight by a state-appointed emergency manager sent to solve the city’s woes, Flint had switched its water supply to save money. For months, residents’ complaints of ailments and foul odors were ignored as city and state officials assured people that the water was safe. But officials had failed to add chemicals that slow corrosion to the water, and investigations later found that the Flint River water was leaching lead and other substances from the city’s maze of old pipes into people’s drinking water. Much of the last few years has been spent trying to repair and replace water lines, and to convince residents that the water is now safe.
Sheldon Neeley, who was elected mayor of Flint after the crisis, said the settlement marked a step forward. “For years, we were victims — our voices and concerns ignored as lead continued to leach into our water,” he said. “However, our community is resilient and we have persevered.”
Other political leaders lauded the settlement, including Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who became governor of Michigan after Rick Snyder, a Republican, and his administration were sharply criticized for their handling of the water in Flint and the aftermath of the scandal.
Anyone who was living in Flint between 2014 and 2016 could be eligible for compensation.
Credit…Erin Kirkland for The New York Times
It was our responsibility to achieve the best possible settlement for the children and families of Flint,” Ms. Whitmer said. “What happened in Flint should never have 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.”
Much of how the settlement will be distributed remains to be seen, though individual amounts received will depend on Flint residents’ degree of suffering and damage from drinking the water.
For now, even the number of people who will receive payments is uncertain; thousands of residents have filed suits against the state, but anyone who was living in Flint between 2014 and 2016 could be eligible, and officials say that some 25,000 children live in the city. And yet to be decided in the courts is how much the lawyers will receive.
I hope the distribution process is fair,” Bishop Roger Jones, a pastor in Flint, said. “But some of these kids are having problems that no amount of money can solve. They’re going to be dealing with these issues the rest of their lives.”
Payments are expected to be distributed starting next spring. That feels a long time away for Ella Campbell, 70, who says she has eczema and difficulty breathing, which she believes were caused by the tainted water. “What about the senior citizens?” she said, noting that she understood that children would be receiving the bulk of the settlement.
Beyond financial compensation, criminal charges against a long list of officials involved in the water crisis remain up in the air — a fact that frustrates Flint residents. Last year, Attorney General Dana Nessel announced that her office was dropping pending criminal cases against government officials who were implicated in the scandal, but she pledged to continue investigating. Her office has not filed additional charges since.
“Today brings us to about 50 percent, but until we have the criminal component worked out, we won’t get to 100 percent,” Jim Ananich, a Democratic state senator who represents Flint, said. He said he remained confident that new criminal charges would be filed.
Still, Mr. Ananich said he worried about the health of his family, including a 5-year-old son, and the period of time a few years ago when the water was tainted. “You tell your kids to wash their hands and drink lots of water, but every parent now is rethinking everything they’ve done during this time,” he said. He said he still did not allow his son, Jacob, to drink water from the tap.
In fact, even on Thursday, the day the settlement was announced, plenty of cars were waiting at the Greater Holy Temple Church of God in Christ for cases of donated water being handed out from a tent. Hundreds of people show up each week. Sandra Smith Jones, 72, the executive director of the R.L. Jones Community Outreach Center, which is affiliated with the church, checks IDs to make sure people live in Flint.
“I’ve been doing this every week since 2016,” she said. “And I’ll be back next week.”
Monica Davey and Julie Bosman contributed reporting. Alain Delaquérière contributed research.