The state of Michigan has agreed to spend up to $97 million by 2020 replacing the municipal pipes that supply drinking water in Flint, Michigan, where a lead contamination crisis has unfolded in the three years since the city changed its source of drinking water in an effort to save money.
On Tuesday, March 28, the state reached a settlement with residents and environmental groups in a case that drew national attention over the past year as residents without access to safe drinking water fought for home deliveries of bottled water and tap filters.
The plaintiffs, including Flint resident Melissa Mays, whose drinking water was contaminated with lead during the crisis, as well as local faith leaders and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said the agreement was a big win for residents of the city, but the fight to restore clean drinking water is not over yet.
"We are the first city to make this change … to force a city to change out its pipes," Mays told reporters on Tuesday.
Lead is not just a problem in Flint, and the crisis in the working-class, majority-Black city brought national attention to lead contamination in other cities across the country, fueling the movement for environmental justice. Like other types of pollution, lead contamination disproportionately impacts low-income communities, and children of color suffer from lead poisoning at higher rates than white children.
In 2015, 18 million people in the United States got their water from systems that received federal lead violations that year, according to the NRDC.
"We hope that our fight and our battle is a great example for other cities and states that are facing these same problems."
Mays and other plaintiffs said the settlement in the Flint case is proof that residents "have the power to force change" by seeking justice under the law when elected officials fail them.
"We hope that our fight and our battle is a great example for other cities and states that are facing these same problems," Mays said.
Under the settlement, the lead drinking water pipes in Flint must be replaced with galvanized steel pipes at no cost to residents within the next three years. About $47 million for the project will come directly out of state coffers, and $50 million will come from federal and state funds allocated to Flint by Congress, according to the NRDC.
The state must maintain at least two bottled water distribution centers until September, but several others will close before then. Most residents won't continue to receive door-to-door bottled water deliveries, an earlier requirement that state officials resisted in court, but the state must deliver bottled water to residents who call a social services helpline until July 1. The deadlines could be extended if contamination levels fail to improve.
"I'm personally not thrilled about their coming to an end with bottled water, but there has to be an end … that's the only real solution," Mays said.
The state must also expand a program designed to help residents install tap filters in their homes, fund water monitoring programs and guarantee funding for seven existing medical programs designed to treat residents for health problems associated with lead exposure.
"Let’s be clear, Flint is not fixed. But things are going to get better," NRDC President Rhea Suh wrote in a blog post. "This did not happen because of the city, state, or federal governments that failed them. It happened because brave people in Flint stood up for their neighbors. They went to court."
The crisis in Flint began in 2014, when state and local officials switched the city's drinking water supply as a cost-cutting measure. The new water supply did not receive adequate anti-corrosion treatments, causing lead pipes to leach the dangerous metal directly into the city's drinking water. Lead can cause an array of health problems, especially in children.
Pastor Allen Overton of Concerned Pastors for Social Action, one of the local plaintiffs in the case, said government officials "ignored" environmental laws meant to protect the public, so Flint residents sued state and local officials under these same laws.
"We took the matter into our own hands," Overton said.
The settlement could be an inspiration for other communities, including East Chicago, Indiana, a majority-Black city where the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently discovered that corroding pipes are contaminating drinking water with lead, much like Flint. Residents of an East Chicago housing project are also under mandatory evacuation orders due to lead contamination left behind by heavy manufacturing.
On March 2, residents of East Chicago and the NRDC petitioned the EPA to take emergency action in their city, much like the agency did in Flint after months of highly scrutinized delay. Despite the petition's insistence that residents in East Chicago are facing an "emergency," the EPA, which is facing drastic budget cuts under the Trump administration, has yet to issue a response.
"When the government fails to uphold democracy and protect our rights to clean water, we have to stand up and fight," Mays said.