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Judge approves $626 million settlement in Flint contaminated water case

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Six hundred and twenty-six million dollars - that's the amount approved by a federal judge for a settlement between the city of Flint and the state of Michigan for their unsafe drinking water. Steve Carmody with Michigan Radio joins us from Flint. Steve, thanks for being here.

STEVE CARMODY, BYLINE: My pleasure.

MARTIN: So first off, remind us of the water crisis. Explain what went so wrong in Flint.

CARMODY: More than seven years ago, Flint's drinking water became contaminated with high levels of lead after the city's drinking water source was switched in an effort to save money. The water was not properly treated, damaging pipes, which release lead and other contaminants into the people's drinking water and made Flint a national symbol for failing infrastructure.

MARTIN: So this settlement, how is it going to be paid out?

CARMODY: Under the agreement approved by U.S. District Judge Judith Levy, nearly 80% of the money in the settlement is set aside for children. Now, young children are most at risk of developing cognitive and other health issues from lead exposure. Now, I should also note, though, this does not settle all lawsuits. But it does represent more than 50,000 plaintiffs. Though, many Flint residents opted out of the master settlement and have the option of pursuing their own individual lawsuits.

MARTIN: So how's this news of the settlement going down in Flint?

CARMODY: Well, the reaction has been mixed. Mayor Sheldon Neeley welcomed the judge's decision, saying it provides some sense of comfort for Flint families. The settlement will provide money for families that continue to deal with health problems even as the city's water quality has improved. But Karen Weaver, who was Flint's mayor during the worst of the water crisis, calls the settlement a slap in the face.

MARTIN: Why?

CARMODY: Well, first, many in Flint, including the former mayor, are not satisfied with the amount of money in it. Some activists believe the state of Michigan should be paying a much higher price to settle the lawsuits. Others are upset that adult residents in Flint are not receiving more compensation for health-related problems or for property damage.

MARTIN: Yeah. So - I mean, where are things at this point with the drinking water supply in Flint? Is it safe to drink the water at this point?

CARMODY: Yes, it is safe. But people in Flint still do not trust that it's safe for them or their children. Remember, government officials misled the public during the water crisis. And it's been difficult to convince residents to trust them again.

MARTIN: So the settlement is part of the accountability, I suppose. But how has that accountability turned into individual responsibility? I mean, has anyone been charged or imprisoned for their role in the crisis?

CARMODY: Charged, yes. Imprisoned, no. Nine former government officials, including former Governor Rick Snyder, are facing criminal charges related to the crisis. But criminal trials are still a long way off. So while the settlement may mark the end of some of the legal wrangling, the courts will still be busy for some time to come.

MARTIN: Can you get more specific on that? What's likely to happen next?

CARMODY: Well, now that the judge has handled the settlement, the claims process can get started. And a claims administrator will figure out who qualifies for what. But there are many things that still have to be worked out, including how much the lawyers will be compensated. Judge is yet to decide how much they'll receive. And it could be as high as $200 million from the settlement, something that has not set well with many people in Flint.

MARTIN: Right. Steve Carmody is the reporter covering all of the fallout from the Flint water crisis for Michigan Radio. Steve, thank you. We appreciate your reporting.

CARMODY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.