Lansing, MI — It takes six bottles of water for Tenise Houston to fix just two boxes of macaroni and cheese for her children. The 42-year-old mother of four has become so accustomed to avoiding tap water that she didn’t even realize it’s been over six years since the water supply for the city of Flint, Michigan was first contaminated with high levels of lead.
“It’s just become a way of life,” Houston said, adding: “I do not trust the water.”
Her two youngest children weren’t even in kindergarten when the city began using improperly treated water from the Flint River as its main source in April 2014. Now 9 and 10 years old, they were exposed to lead for nearly 18 months before state and local officials acknowledged what was happening.
“We all (drank) the water before we knew it had lead in it,” she said.
No one has been criminally prosecuted. Last year, the state attorney general dropped all charges against 15 officials connected to the decision to switch the city’s water source and cover up the resulting fallout, leaving —residents frustrated and angry.
But now, in a deal that could provide some relief, the state has reached an agreement to settle all Flint water civil cases against the state and its employees. The settlement requires that the state of Michigan pay $600 million into a qualified settlement fund to aid those injured by lead-tainted water, which can cause irreversible brain damage and heart disease.
But the largest benefactors of the settlement are the city’s most vulnerable — the children. Nearly 80 percent of the funds will be distributed to those who were children during the water crisis.
“The settlement recognizes the effects the crisis has had, and will continue to have on the children of Flint,” said Corey Stern, the lead counsel who is representing 2,600 individual children in the litigation. “The most deserving group won in this case — the kids won.”
The settlement allocates nearly 65 percent of the funds to children like Houston’s, who were six and under at their first exposure to Flint water, 10 percent for those who were 7-11, and five percent for ages 12-17. Lead poisoning can be difficult to prove, but in this case, Stern says, Flint kids won’t have to. The settlement assumes lead exposure and damage for all children living in the city during the 18-month period, with increased awards for those who present evidence of personal injuries, blood or bone lead levels, or who lived in homes with lead service lines.
Funds will be set aside for the children until they turn 18, which could lead to higher awards, Stern said. “For a lot of these kids their money will be accruing interest and annuities overtime, so the real value of their settlement is going to be much higher than what it looks like on paper right now.”
The remaining 20 percent will be distributed to adult residents and others exposed to the water, including property owners and businesses.
The settlement also includes those who were exposed to the water and contracted Legionnaires’ disease, a fatal but preventable illness from legionella, a waterborne pathogen. Only 12 residents were reported by the state to have died from the disease. But a FRONTLINE investigation discovered the toll was far higher, including those who survived their initial diagnosis only to succumb months or years later to complications from the illness.
Stern said: “Families who lost loved ones as a result of exposure to legionella will be substantially compensated for their unnecessary and tragic losses.”
As for Houston, she said she welcomed the settlement, but wanted to know more. “Right now, it sounds like it’s great, because they don’t show any symptoms, but I don’t know what will happen in five years,” Houston said. “ When they are 15 or 16, who knows. Will this money actually help in the long run?”
In 2014, state of Michigan officials under the leadership of former Gov. Rick Snyder, made a cost-cutting move to not adequately treat Flint River water. In the fall of 2015 doctors released information that children who consumed the water had elevated blood lead levels. Now health officials say they estimate that 150,000 people were exposed to the water, including people who worked and visited Flint during that time.
The settlement includes only the state of Michigan. Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley declined to comment on whether a settlement could be expected from the city. But he said a settlement moves residents closer to recovery. “As a Flint resident … there’s several levels of benefits to this,” he said. “This is another step forward.”
Stern and his team are still seeking compensation from federal and local entities, including the Environmental Protection Agency and private agencies Veolia, Lockwood, Andrews & Newman Inc., Rowe Engineering and McLaren Regional Medical Center.
He said: “I would tell the people of Flint that this is just the beginning.”
(This story is published in collaboration with the PBS series FRONTLINE.)