The U.S. state of Michigan said on Thursday that it had reached a preliminary settlement to pay $600 million US to victims of the Flint water crisis, potentially closing a chapter on one of that country's worst public health crises in recent memory.
If approved, the deal would provide the bulk of the funds to children impacted by poisoning of the water in the city of Flint.
It would rank as the largest settlement in the state's history, attorney general Dana Nessel said in a statement.
The settlement is the culmination of 18 months of talks over how to compensate residents who were sickened by tap water after state officials switched the city's water supply six years ago, sparking a crisis that garnered national attention.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who inherited the crisis upon taking office in 2019, acknowledged that the agreement would not solve all of the city's problems and vowed to keep allocating resources to ensure Flint's water was safe.
"What happened in Flint should never have happened," Whitmer said in recorded remarks. "The uncertainty and troubles that the people of Flint have endured is unconscionable. It is time for the state to do what it can."
Lawsuits against the state are being overseen by U.S. District Judge Judith Levy, who would have to approve the settlement.
In January, the Supreme Court let Flint residents pursue a civil rights lawsuit that accused the city and government officials of knowingly allowing the water supply to become contaminated with lead.
Flint switched its water source from the city of Detroit to the Flint River to save money in 2014, while under control of a state-appointed emergency manager. State environmental regulators advised Flint, located about about 112 kilometres north of Detroit, not to apply corrosion controls to the water, which was contaminated by lead from aging pipes.
Residents of the city with a population of nearly 100,000 people quickly began complaining that the water was discoloured and had a bad taste and smell. They blamed it for rashes, hair loss and other health concerns, but local and state officials insisted it was safe.
Researchers with Virginia Tech University reported in summer 2015 that samples of Flint water had abnormally high lead levels. Shortly afterward, a group of doctors announced that local children had high levels of lead in their blood and urged Flint to stop using water from the river.
More than 25,000 people were harmed through exposure to contaminants in Flint, including more than 5,000 children younger than 12, court records showed as of January.
Then-governor Rick Snyder eventually acknowledged the problem, accepted the resignation of his environmental chief and pledged to aid the city, which resumed using Detroit water.
Residents used bottled water for drinking and household needs for more than a year. Researchers said in late 2016 that lead was no longer detectable in many homes.
The settlement stipulates that 79.5 per cent of the funds will be allocated to children exposed to the water, the majority of whom were under six at the time of the crisis. Some 18 per cent will go to adults and to settle property damage.
LeeAnne Walters, a 42-year-old resident of Flint, said she was happy the agreement is focused on children. She said her twin boys, now nine, have been seeing a speech therapist after a pediatrician diagnosed them with an impediment caused by lead in the water.
"Even today, we still suffer with the rashes that started in 2014, all of us," she told Reuters. "Whatever was in that water
then is still affecting us now."
If the settlement gains approval, it will resolve more than a hundred state and federal cases, Nessel said.
However, Nessel said that lawsuits filed by her predecessor against a subsidiary of French water company Veolia and Houston-based engineering services firm Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam (LAN) would continue unless they joined the settlement in 45 days.
A spokesperson for Veolia North America said she did not immediately have a comment.
A lawyer for LAN, one of the companies involved in carrying out the switch of the city's water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014, said the company had "no responsibility for providing water treatment and plant operation services" at the time of switch and the state was to blame.
"We look forward to our day in court so that all of the facts surrounding LAN's lack of involvement in this tragedy will be made clear," Wayne Mason said in an emailed statement.
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