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Flint, MI– Gina Luster held a plastic bag full of hair up to her web camera.
She said it was her daughter’s, and that it all came out at once while she was combing her hair one day years ago.
Luster, an organizer for Flint Rising and Water Warrior, said she still has the bottles of the brown, discolored water. She saved their teeth too — the ones that fell out and “crumbled like crackers.”
She and her daughter have been to multiple doctors for seven years looking for answers. Not one doctor, Luster said, would put it in their medical records that the issues they were having with their hair, skin, and teeth, were related to the contaminated water they had been drinking.
Luster said without a doctor’s confirmation that their illnesses were due to the water crisis, they will not be able to make a claim for funds from the $641.25 million water lawsuit settlement.
“What 12-year-old should have to take 50,000 units of Vitamin D? What 12-year-old should be complaining her bones hurt, and she doesn’t want to take dance classes anymore,” Luster asked. “And what 46-year-old mother could look her daughter in the face and say this is it, we’re not gonna get anything from this?”
Luster, and other residents impacted by the water crisis, shared their stories Jan. 18, on a Zoom call intended to both celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and discuss the injustices that Flint has been facing for years.
Mona Munroe-Younis, executive director of the Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint, talked about the skin conditions she and her son both have after showering in the unfiltered water. Even after switching to filtered water, trying home remedies, changing their detergents, and buying expensive lotions and treatments, she said she can’t get rid of the multiple forms of psoriasis she has.
Audrey Muhammad talked about the challenges she’s faced caring for her grandson who was born right after it was announced that the water had been poisoned. She said his speech is delayed, and she can see so much frustration in him as he tries to express himself.
Joyce Ellis McNeal spoke about her son, Joseph Pounds Jr., who died after being exposed to the contaminated water from what she swears “could not have been just pneumonia.”
“Six years later and I’m still weeping,” she said.
Many residents spoke to the difficulty of getting doctors to link their illnesses to the water crisis. In certain categories, the only way to qualify to receive settlement funds, is to show proof of injury– a requirement that, for some, will be extremely difficult or impossible to do.
Dr. Benjamin Pauli, an assistant professor at Kettering University, called the need for proof of injury an “added burden on the community.”
“We know that even children to some extent are going to have to document the harm that they have suffered,” Paul said. “We know that testing that would capture that harm has not always been available to everyone at an affordable price.”
He went on to say that people have been misdiagnosed with pneumonia instead of Legionnaires’ disease, that people may have visited Flint and consumed water but can’t prove it, and that people who are homeless may have trouble providing proof of harm too.
“So for all of these reasons, the burden that the community that the community faces in proving that it has been harmed remains very high, even in light of this large sum that is on the table,” Pauli said.
For those that are able to make a claim, he said the amount of money a person would receive from the settlement would not be “likely to have a transformative effect on their lives,” or even to “compensate them for the harm that they have incurred.”
Aurora Sauceda, the Community Coordinator for Latinos United for Flint, said the Latinx community has lost hope that they will ever be fully compensated after the unfair treatment they received throughout the water crisis.
“From the very beginning, they weren’t aware of the water crisis,” Sauceda said. “As they began to receive information in their language, which is Spanish, the one thing that they received mostly was gift cards for participating in focus groups or surveys.”
She said that as water distribution sites began to decrease, the ones that remained required unndocumented residents to provide valid identification in order to get food or water. Even now, she said people seem to forget that when they only send out notices written in English, they’re not likely to be read by the Spanish-speaking community.
“Because we have so many other issues that we have to deal with, we have given up any hope that our people will ever be compensated for the damage the water did to our community,” Sauceda said.
Judge Judith Levy is expected to make her decision on whether or not to preliminarily approve the settlement by Jan. 21.
Speakers at the virtual event said they hoped she was listening to them.
“I hope that they’re watching this…and I hope that they’re able to look my daughter in the face and say I’m sorry I don’t have anything to give you for your suffering,” Luster said. “And that you might not be able to reproduce later in life, and that you may have problems with cancer. And that you may have hypertension.”
McNeal said she wanted to see a memorial wall built in memory of the lives lost during the water crisis, that lawyers should visit before making any “financial decisions over people [they] have not even sat down and had a conversation with.”
Munroe-Younis said while she was glad the settlement prioritized children, “there needs to be a way to build in a recognition that we all have had some form of psychological trauma,” too.
Pauli quoted Dr. King, who said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“If we allow injustice to go uncorrected, if we don’t do everything that residents need and expect and deserve…then we risk setting the wrong kind of example for communities who are facing similar challenges,” he said. “And that is why we, here in Flint, need to fight.”