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Judge Approves Settlement To Replace Flint's Lead-Tainted Water Lines


Now some news out of Flint, Mich. A federal judge has granted final approval on a settlement between people who live in Flint and the city and state governments. The state will pay nearly a hundred million dollars to inspect water service lines for at least 18,000 homes in Flint and replace the ones that are made of lead or galvanized steel by 2020. The settlement also gives money to health programs that mitigate the effects of lead exposure.

Here to talk with us is one of the plaintiffs in the case, Melissa Mays. Welcome back to the program.

MELISSA MAYS: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Are you satisfied with the terms of this settlement?

MAYS: With this settlement, yes because this was a lawsuit that we had filed 14 months ago under the Safe Drinking Water Act. And the only focus is lead. And it's a huge step forward for that because the only way to get the lead out of the water is to remove the lead and the galvanized lines. We still have huge issues that we're facing for bacteria and also water shutoffs to begin next week. But this is the first step ahead in this major war.

SHAPIRO: When you say water shutoffs to begin next week, that's to people who are not paying their water bills because they're upset that they're paying for water that they can't use.

MAYS: Absolutely and then also people that just can't afford to pay the highest rates in the United States. We still pay $200 to $300 a month on average for water we cannot safely use. So it's hard. I mean of course your gut wants to say, no, I'm not going to pay for this. But then there's fear because when you get your water shut off, you know, they could condemn your home. They could cap your sewer. Child Protective Services could be called in. I mean there's a plethora of things that could happen. It's very scary.

But on the other hand, we live 41 percent at or below the poverty line, so paying those really high water rates on top of paying for the damages that the water has done to your body and your home is just unaffordable. So we're stuck between a rock and a hard place.

SHAPIRO: And it doesn't sound like this settlement addresses that problem.

MAYS: No, absolutely it does not. This is everything under the Safe Drinking Water Act that we could possibly get. And of course that's for lead line removals and everything like that. It does not cover personal damages or money to Flint residents, but it is going to start to work on the tainted water issue.

And I mean again, the only real solution for that is to get the poisonous pipes out of the ground. So this is one step for that, but it's not going to settle anything with money when it comes to water bills or personal damages.

SHAPIRO: The judge has now given you a solution to the problem of lead pipes three years in the future. What happens for those next three years, though?

MAYS: For the next three years, we still have to be very careful. We have to test our water. If people do trust the filters to remove lead, they need to make sure they're maintaining their cartridges and making sure that they're being very careful. In my household, I don't trust the filters because of the bacteria risk, but that's something else we have to work on.

So Flint residents still have to fight. As these pipes are coming out, we have to make sure that all water issues are being addressed. And a lot of them aren't covered under the Safe Drinking Water Act, so we got to work to change the laws. We have to update these laws to protect not just Flint residents but everyone else in this country.

SHAPIRO: The last time we spoke to you on this program was back in November, and at that point, a federal judge had issued a ruling ordering state and city officials to provide people in Flint with reliable access to clean water, including door-to-door bottled water deliveries. That's not part of this settlement, though.

MAYS: No, there were some parts that unfortunately we had to give, but we did manage to keep the points of distribution or the PODs open - so where people can still get water - and then also to push up - to upgrade 211. So if people are homebound and cannot get the water, they can call 211, and now 211 has to deliver within 24 hours. So all the existing services are now bumped up, and we are able to monitor them.

SHAPIRO: This settlement is obviously a major development in this long story of Flint, Mich.'s, water problems. Do you feel like it represents some sort of justice for what your city has been through?

MAYS: A little bit. This is - again, this is the first little battle won in this huge overall war. It's - for the first time, we've been able to have a federal court enforce the state to do the right thing, which is to replace the pipes that their agencies and their administration broke.

And now people can start to see progress because we haven't. And that's something that Flint residents need. And hopefully this will be gasoline on the fire and motivation to keep fighting because this is a good step forward, but it's not enough.

SHAPIRO: Melissa Mays is one of the plaintiffs in the Flint, Mich., case that reached a settlement today. Thanks for joining us once again.

MAYS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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