LANSING, Mich. (NewsNation) — Michigan has reached a preliminary settlement to pay $600 million to victims of the Flint water crisis, Gretchen Whitmer announced Thursday.
“What happened in Flint should have never 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,” Whitmer said in a statement.
The disaster made Flint a nationwide symbol of governmental mismanagement. More than two years of negotiations between the state and attorneys representing thousands of city residents produced an agreement to create a fund from which victims will be able to seek payments.
If approved, the deal would provide the bulk of the funds to children impacted by a poisoning of the water in Flint and would rank as the largest settlement in the state’s history, attorney general Dana Nessel said in a statement.
“Flint residents have endured more than most, and to draw out the legal back-and-forth even longer would have achieved nothing but continued hardship,” Nessel said.
The proposed deal announced Thursday would need to be approved by U.S. District Judge Judith Levy, who is overseeing lawsuits against the state.
Nearly 80% will go to claimants who were minor children during the period covered by the deal, with the largest share — 64.5% — devoted to children who were ages 6 and under when first exposed to the contaminated water.
The settlement would push state spending on the Flint water crisis over $1 billion, if approved. Michigan already has pumped more than $400 million into replacing water pipes, purchasing filters and bottled water, children’s health care and other assistance.
Lead is a powerful toxin that can harm people of any age but is especially dangerous to children. Lead exposure can cause damage to children’s brains and nervous systems, slow growth and development and lead to learning and behavior problems, among other health issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
LeeAnne Walters, a 42-year-old resident of Flint, told Reuters that she was happy the agreement is focused on children. She said her twin boys, now 9, 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 said. “Whatever was in that water then is still affecting us now.”
Reports of elevated levels of lead in the blood of some children were among warning signs that prompted officials to acknowledge problems more than a year after Flint switched its water source from the city of Detroit to the Flint River in April 2014.
The move was made to cut costs while Flint was under control of a state-appointed emergency manager during the administration of former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
State environmental regulators advised Flint, located about 70 miles north of Detroit, not to apply corrosion controls to the water, leading to contamination by lead that leached from aging pipes.
Residents of the city with a population of nearly 100,000 people quickly began complaining that the water was discolored 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.
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.
Other suits are pending against Flint, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and private consultants that advised the city on water issues.
Under the deal, 15% of the funds will go to adults who experienced harm and 3% will compensate for property damage. The remaining money will be used for business losses and relief programs.
The settlement covers a period between April 25, 2014, and July 31, 2016. People who were minors living in Flint will be eligible for compensation without proving personal injury, although those who can demonstrate they suffered harm such as elevated lead levels in bone or blood will get larger payments.
Adults exposed to Flint water during the period will need to show proof of personal injury.
A process will be established for people to submit claims. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said information about the claims process, eligibility and more will be made available online once settlement documents are completed.
State lawyers said they knew of 28,000 people who had filed suits, sent notice of their intent to sue or hired an attorney.
Flint residents could decline to take part in the settlement and file suit separately.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.