A settlement may have been reached, but residents of Flint, Mich. are still dealing with the lifelong effects of the horrific 2014 water crisis. (Photo courtesy of Unsplash)

By Zsana Hoskins,
Special to the AFRO

In March 2023, Judge Judith E. Levy, of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan announced the final approval of a partial settlement for eligible adults and minors exposed to contaminated water in Flint. The settlement will also address property and businessowners affected by the crisis. The deadline to submit claims was June 30.

The AFRO recently spoke with Flint, Mich. natives about the matter, as they await monetary compensation for their ordeal.

The Flint, Mich. water crisis started in 2014 when the drinking water in the city was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save money. The river water corroded the city pipes causing contamination and an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed at least 12 people.

Now, nine years later, $626 million will be disbursed to victims—$600 million from the state of Michigan, $20 million from the city of Flint, Mich., $5 million from McLaren Hospital and $1 million from Rowe Professional Services.

According to court documents, McLaren Hospital has been accused of being responsible for the Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks that occurred throughout the crisis and Rowe Professional Services was the city’s engineer from June 2002 until June 2016.

In 2020, both companies, along with the city of Flint, joined the state of Michigan’s offer to settle water crisis lawsuits filed on behalf of city residents.

Ariella Manuel, a Flint, Mich. native and student at Howard University, feels as though the settlement doesn’t make up for the damage caused.

“Honestly, I don’t think this or any settlement could really make up for the years of lying and gaslighting Flint went through,” said Manuel. “The government screwed us over and decided to put a dollar amount on that. It really just feels like something to finally shut us up or a ‘Don’t say we never did anything for you!’ type thing. It’s very impersonal and twisted.”

Blake Spencer, another Flint, Mich. native that was present during the crisis, said the settlement news brought about mixed emotions for him.

“It’s conflicting because living on the south side, I’ve seen and also been a victim of what the the water crisis did to me, my family, and my friends. There’s no monetary amount of money that can be given to the residents for the traumatic events that took place because of the Flint Water Crisis—the humiliation, the embarrassment,” said Spencer. “I was happy at first because the monetary settlement makes an immediate impact. But I know deep down that this is only the tip of the iceberg, a small bandage that covers a gushing wound.”

Almost 100,000 Flint, Mich. residents were exposed to lead in the drinking water, with nearly 9,000 of those affected being children under six.

Manuel recalled the first time she realized the water was contaminated—the beginning of what would become a traumatic period for herself and her family.

“I remember the exact day they switched the water source. I went to get some water from the sink, and it had a smell. I took a sip, and the only way I could describe the taste is ‘swamp.’ It only got worse from there,” said Manuel. “They ended up partitioning off the water fountains at school because the water wasn’t safe to drink. I had a rash on my chest for years from showering with the water. Water bottles just became a way of life because you need water to live. And the government continued to lie to us and tell us it was fine to use.”

Various people complained about similar issues but their concerns went unaddressed. Manuel said that eventually, residents in the area were issued a “boil water” advisory.

“At some point in Flint, you could drive down the street and see billboards telling you not to boil your water because it only makes the lead worse. We had conflicting messages,” recalls Manuel.

“My Nonnie—my grandmother—had it much worse. Her water was coming out the pipes rust orange. That’s part of why I genuinely don’t feel any amount of money could make up for what happened. They’re offering compensation almost 10 years later for this,” she said. “My Nonnie just recently passed over the summer. She was gravely affected, and she didn’t get to live to get the settlement because they waited so long to finally own up to what they did and offer any sort of reprieve.” Spencer and his family were also deeply affected by this city-wide crisis.

“I was personally tested for higher levels of lead in my blood as a child. I know people, and was also one of those people, that had to use bottled water for virtually everything—cooking, cleaning. People didn’t trust the filters. It traumatized us,” Spencer shared.

According to the city of Flint, over 10,000 pipes were replaced in 2022. “The Flint Water Crisis began in part because Flint’s backup water source was the Flint River. In 2022, Flint completed construction of a new backup water source that ensures the City of Flint will never be in that position again. The City of Flint is committed to removing all lead service lines. To date, 28,424 addresses have been checked for lead service lines. Lead service lines were discovered and removed at 10,468 of those addresses,” a representative from the city of Flint said.

While the lead levels no longer call for a crisis, many Flint residents still do not feel comfortable drinking the water.

“As bad as it may seem on the news, it’s worse. There are so many levels of disappointment and being failed by the people who are supposed to serve us. Despite not being able to use the water, we were still expected to pay our bills on time,” Manuel told the AFRO. “The water bill just kept increasing. Surrounding towns and cities didn’t have to pay as much for water, and they could use their water. It’s still the same case today. They say the water is safe to use, but when you gaslight a city for years, the distrust never goes away. Most of us still turn to water bottles.”

In response to claims made by Manuel and Spencer, the city of Flint, Mich. said they are working towards restoring trust in the Flint, Mich. community.

“Much has changed since former Governor Rick Snyder suspended local democracy and took authority away from Flint’s mayor and city council, allowing emergency managers to make the disastrous decisions that created the Flint water crisis,” said a city representative. “Since that time, Flint’s city government has returned to local democratic control, and Flint’s current elected officials are committed to prioritizing the health and safety of Flint residents.”

“It will take a long time to rebuild trust in Flint’s water system, but the City of Flint continues to invest in its water infrastructure to ensure that residents have access to clean water,” continued the representative. “Flint now purchases treated water from the Great Lakes Water Authority and the Genesee County Drain Commission, and both of these systems source water from Lake Huron.”

According to Flint Water Justice, 79.5 percent of the settlement funding will be spent on children who are or were minors when first exposed to the water in Flint, Mich., 18 percent will be spent on adults and property damage, 0.5 percent will be spent on business loss, and 2 percent will be spent on programs for the children of Flint. $20 million of the money will go directly to Legionella injuries and death cases.

Children under six who tested positive for elevated lead levels during the crisis are eligible to receive more money than minors with lower or no lead levels. Amounts will vary on when individuals were exposed and other details of the claim.

Manuel doesn’t agree with the allocation of the funds.

“They put extensive stipulations on who gets the money. It went from ‘If you were affected’ to ‘You have to be a child or have a child between age this to this’ and ‘You have to have went to a Flint school’, and ‘You have to be able to prove it affected you’. And the list just kept going on and on. While I agree that kids were affected and should receive compensation, water isn’t just something children use. We all need water. We used the water. We all deserve to be compensated,” Manuel said.

Claims are currently being reviewed and the process could take weeks to months, according to a notice from court-appointed Special Master, Deborah Greenspan on the settlement website.

Notices on claim decisions are currently being sent out. The length of the process will be determined by how many individuals appeal their decisions.

Regardless of the settlement, both Manuel and Spencer want to see a change in their hometown.

“Hope is a funny word because it’s hard to have any. It wasn’t just the city that failed us. It was the state,” said Manuel. “Any money that was donated to us by celebrities when the water crisis was finally declared a crisis just seemed to disappear into thin air. So I can’t quite say I hope for anything to come from the settlement. I suppose I just hope someday someone comes into power that cares about the people of Flint.”

Spencer wants the crisis to lead to a broader conversation about underlying issues in the city.

“I hope to see more focus on fighting back and combating environmental racism. I hope to see an increase of education funding and a focus on education for those Flint children that struggle because of the lead poisoning. It’s a multifaceted battle in which destitution was the impetus of these problems. The Flint Water crisis only exacerbated those problems. We need material change, not celebrities coming into the city and doing pop-up shows,” Spencer added.