The US state of Michigan has reached a preliminary deal to pay $600m to compensate Flint residents whose health was damaged by lead-tainted drinking water after the city heeded state regulators’ advice not to treat it properly, officials announced on Thursday.
The amount awarded per applicant would be based on the degree of harm caused from drinking the water.
The proposed deal for residents of the impoverished, majority-Black city of Flint who were harmed by the water is a step towards making amends for a disaster that upended life in the city, Governor Gretchen Whitmer said on 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, adding that she was “deeply sorry for the uncertainty and troubles” the crisis had caused.
More than 18 months of negotiations between the state and lawyers representing thousands of Flint residents produced an agreement to create a fund from which victims will be able to seek payments.
The proposed deal would need to be approved by US District Judge Judith Levy, who is overseeing lawsuits against the state.
It would rank as the largest settlement in the state’s history, attorney general Dana Nessel said in a statement.
Nearly 80 percent will go to claimants who were minor children during the period covered by the deal, with the largest share, 64.5 percent, devoted to children who were aged six and under when first exposed to the contaminated water.
More than 25,000 people were harmed through exposure to contaminants in Flint, including more than 5,000 children younger than 12, court records showed as of January, the Reuters news agency reported.
Lead is a powerful toxin that can harm people at any age but is especially dangerous to children, potentially damaging the brain and nervous system and causing learning and behavioural problems.
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 the control of a state-appointed emergency manager during the administration of former Republican Governor Rick Snyder.
State environmental regulators advised that Flint, located about 113 kilometres (70 miles) north of Detroit, not to apply corrosion controls to the water, leading to contamination by lead that leached from ageing pipes.
Residents of the city with a population of nearly 100,000 people used bottled water quickly began complaining that the water was discoloured 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.
If the settlement gains approval, it will resolve more than a hundred state and federal cases, Nessel said.
However, Nessel said that lawsuits filed by her predecessor against a subsidiary of French water company Veolia and Houston-based engineering services firm Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam (LAN) would continue unless they joined the settlement in 45 days.
A spokeswoman for Veolia North America said she did not immediately have a comment. LAN did not immediately return a request for comment.