Flint, Michigan, will replace its crumbling pipes by 2020 to settle a lawsuit over its lead-contaminated water crisis.
U.S. District Judge David Lawson approved the settlement agreement at a Tuesday court hearing in the case, brought by several advocacy groups who sued the city and the state of Michigan over the lead crisis last year.
Under the terms of the agreement, the city will conduct the sweeping infrastructure project using state and federal funds. They’ve agreed to dig up services lines at 18,000 homes and replace lines made of lead and galvanized steel.
The state will put $87 million toward pipe replacement and keep an additional $10 million in reserve. In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded $100 million to the city for its water infrastructure improvements after Congress approved the funding last year.
“This hard-fought victory means safer water for Flint,” Dimple Chaudhary, a senior attorney with plaintiff group Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “For the first time, there will be an enforceable commitment to get the lead pipes out of the ground. The people of Flint are owed at least this much.”
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) praised the agreement and said in a statement that the state will also focus on economic development, job placement and riverfront revitalization projects to improve Flint’s future.
“There was a great deal of hard work that went into this comprehensive solution, and I want to thank everyone who came together to agree on solutions that will assist residents for years to come,” Snyder said.
The problem began in 2014, when the city stopped buying water from Detroit and started drawing water from the Flint River instead. The city failed to properly treat the more contaminated water under the direction of the state Department of Environmental Quality, and the water corroded city pipes, leaching lead into the water.
Tests showed water lead levels above the federal limit and a dramatic increase in the number of children with elevated lead levels in their blood. Any amount of lead exposure is a health risk, particularly for young children, and can stunt their brain development.
The city switched back to the Detroit water system ― which draws from Lake Huron ― in 2015, and has already started replacing pipes, though at a slow pace.
In February, officials said that since March, they had replaced service lines at just 780 homes. The court agreement calls for the city to get through 6,000 homes by January of next year and complete the entire project within three years.
Recent testing shows that the lead levels in the city’s drinking water are below the threshold to comply with federal regulations, but residents are still advised not to drink tap water unless it is filtered, and many people are still relying on bottled water.
The city currently offers free bottled water at nine pick-up sites and has a hotline for residents to request delivery to their homes. The plaintiffs had initially pressed for home delivery to be expanded citywide, but the agreement instead sets a schedule to gradually stop supplying bottled water altogether.
The city will be allowed to begin closing some of the nine water pick-up sites in May if demand drops, and by September won’t be required to operate any of the sites if water lead levels stay under the limit. Residents will still be allowed to call a hotline to request bottled water through June.
The settlement requires the city to supply household water test kits and filters ― which need to be replaced often ― to residents until a year after pipes have been replaced, on the state’s dime. It also calls for an expansion of the city’s education program so residents know how to properly use filters, with a staff of 90 educators dispatched to households six days a week. It’s a crucial component after misinformation was rampant early in the crisis.
This story has been updated with additional details about the settlement and its approval in court, as well as with comment from Snyder.