Deal ups flow of funding for Flint water fallout

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — The state will spend an additional $47 million to help ensure safe drinking water in Flint by replacing lead pipes and providing free bottled water under a proposed settlement announced Monday.

The money is in addition to $40 million previously budgeted to address Flint’s widespread lead-contamination crisis. The state also will set aside $10 million to cover unexpected costs, bringing the total to $97 million.

The settlement was revealed in a lawsuit filed last year by a coalition of religious, environmental and civil rights activists. The coalition alleged Flint water was not safe to drink because state and city officials were violating the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“We think this proposed agreement provides a comprehensive framework to address lead contamination in Flint’s tap water,” said Dimple Chaudhary, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and lead plaintiffs’ counsel on the case. “It covers a number of critical issues related to water safety.”

The deal provides more money to repair the city’s water lines but also gives the state an opportunity in the future to stop providing free bottled water to residents.

U.S. District Judge David Lawson will review the settlement during a 1 p.m. hearing Tuesday in Detroit.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder declined comment Monday, citing the pending court hearing. A state Treasury spokeswoman declined comment.

The lawsuit was filed last year by a group led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the ACLU of Michigan, Concerned Pastors for Social Action and Flint resident Melissa Mays, who also declined comment Monday.

The proposed deal covers a four-year period and comes 10 days after the Environmental Protection Agency awarded a $100 million emergency grant to Michigan to fund infrastructure upgrades in Flint, where lead-contaminated water damaged service lines.

The funding was approved by Congress in December and signed into law by President Barack Obama, but the EPA had to review and approve a formal request from state officials detailing how the city intends to use the grant money.

Under terms of Monday’s deal, the city will replace lead and galvanized steel service lines at homes served by the Flint’s municipal water system.

Also, the state will deliver free bottled water to homebound residents and continue operating at least nine water distribution centers Monday through Saturday. The state will provide bottled water, free filters, cartridges and water-testing kits at each of the centers.

The agreement does not provide door-to-door bottled water delivery, as sought by the plaintiffs, but residents can continue to call the 211 water response service and receive free bottled water within 24 hours.

The water-distribution centers can be closed after May 1 if 20 people or fewer pick up supplies at a particular location. The centers could be shut down as early as Sept. 1 depending on water-quality tests.

The city, meanwhile, will identify what type of service lines are in place at at least 18,000 homes and pay to replace any lead or galvanized steel with copper service lines. The 18,000 homes is an estimate of how many lead pipes exist in Flint.

An evaluation will be conducted in approximately one year and if there are more than 18,000 lines, the state will spend the $10 million in reserve funds to replace those pipes.

If costs rise beyond $97 million, the state is obliged to use its best efforts to secure additional funding, possibly from the Legislature, according to the proposed settlement.

The proposed agreement also includes the state paying $895,000 in litigation costs to the plaintiffs.

State Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, said Monday that Flint can use all the help it can get.

“Right now, we’re still at a point where residents are still drinking bottled water, some are still cooking with bottled water and every little bit that has been allocated for getting people back to a normal standard quality of life is important.”

The proposed settlement comes 14 months after the coalition sued several parties, including state Treasurer Nick Khouri, the five-member Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board, Flint City Administrator Natasha Henderson and the city of Flint.

The government also agreed to monitor lead levels in Flint’s tap water for one year — more time than required under the law. The settlement is retroactive to Jan. 1.

According to the settlement, an independent program will be created for additional monitoring. The monitor will not be affiliated with the state or Flint.

Additionally, Flint residents can continue to have their tap water tested for free for the next four years. Residents can have their water tested up to four times each year.

The state also will strengthen its water filter installation and education program, according to the deal.

Teams will go door-to-door to educate residents and ensure filters are installed correctly and provide replacement filter cartridges through next year.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, called it “a very fair settlement” and said that he’s been “given assurances” that Flint will have enough money to completely replace the city’s lead pipes.

“So I’m gonna hold them to that,” he said. “We’ll make sure that the resources are there.”

Staff Writer Michael Gerstein contributed.