LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Thursday that a proposed $600 million deal between the state of Michigan and residents of the city of Flint who were harmed by lead-tainted water is a step toward making amends for a disaster that upended life in the city.
"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.
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.
"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," Attorney General Dana 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.
If approved, the settlement would push state spending on the Flint water crisis over $1 billion. 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 at any age but is especially dangerous to children, potentially damaging the brain and nervous system and causing learning and behavior 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 control of a state-appointed emergency manager during the administration of former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
State environmental regulators advised that Flint, located about about 70 miles (113 kilometers) 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 used bottled water 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.
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. But Corey Stern, a New York attorney representing about 2,600 children who was involved in the talks, told The Associated Press he would advise his clients to accept the deal.
"This is about as good a deal with the state of Michigan as anyone's ever going to get," he said.
Officials said they hoped others who have been targeted in lawsuits, including the city of Flint and the EPA, will join the settlement. Suits also are pending against two private water consulting firms.
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