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‘Hard-fought victory’: Flint seals deal to replace 18,000 home water lines

The state will cover the cost of replacing water lines -- the pipes that connect household plumbing to the main distribution pipe running beneath the street -- for at least 18,000 Flint households by 2020, according to the settlement, which resulted from a lawsuit over lead-tainted water in the city.

Flint is getting the money it wants to replace pipes that contributed to its water crisis, but it’s not enough to persuade Vicky Jones to stay in the eastern Michigan city.

Jones, 66 and homebound, says she isn’t heartened by Tuesday’s settlement in a lawsuit over lead-tainted water, one that compels Michigan to set aside millions of dollars that Flint will use to replace problem pipes to at least 18,000 households by 2019.

Jones, who like many Flint residents has used free, city-supplied bottled water and tap filters for months, tires of waiting for water quality to improve. Her tap water still was testing higher than normal for lead about six months ago, and she and some relatives are preparing to move, she said.

“I don’t feel safe, period, anymore,” Jones, an apartment resident, said by phone. “I’m moving to Detroit … before the end of the summer.”

But for the groups suing on behalf of Flint residents, it’s a leap forward.

“This hard-fought victory means safer water for Flint. For the first time, there will be an enforceable commitment to get the lead pipes out of the ground,” said Dimple Chaudhary, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney. “The people of Flint are owed at least this much.”

Millions of dollars for pipe replacements

The settlement, accepted by a federal judge, resolves just one of the civil lawsuits filed against state and city officials. The crisis began when Flint tap water was contaminated with lead and other toxins after the city switched water sources as a cost-cutting measure in 2014.

The deal requires Michigan to give Flint $87 million in state and federal funds so the city can replace lead and other problem water pipes that connect homes to the city’s main water line. Some of that — $20 million — comes from a $100 million Environmental Protection Agency grant awarded to upgrade Flint’s water system last week; $20 million more comes from a state match.

The state government must come up with an additional $47 million, the settlement says. Also, it must set aside a further $10 million in federal funds for potential cost overruns.

The city says it estimates pipes leading to 20,000 households need to be replaced, and it wants to complete this by the end of 2019. Pipes leading to nearly 800 homes have been replaced so far.

The deal says pipes leading to at least 6,000 households will be replaced by the end of 2017, with a further 6,000 done by the end of 2018.

The settlement also requires the city maintain at least two centers where residents can pick up free bottled water and tap water filters through September, and longer if city water testing still shows too much contamination.

Aside from the settlement, the city is working on plans to build a new water treatment plant by 2019.

Tuesday’s deal does not affect other pending lawsuits, including one in which people are seeking monetary damages for alleged health problems and property damage.

Hope for plaintiffs

A member of the group of pastors that brought the lawsuit said more must be done.

“The water issue must be resolved before we can make Flint thrive again, and I believe this resolution offers a path to a healthier, less traumatic future for everyone in Flint,” said the Rev. Allen Overton. “I remain hopeful that we have time to restore Flint to a place where dreams are made and hope stays alive.”

The lawsuit was brought against representatives of the city and state by Concerned Pastors for Social Action, a local group of religious leaders in Flint and the surrounding areas, the ACLU of Michigan and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

What is the crisis?

In 2014, to save money, the state switched Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, a tributary notorious for its filth. The Department of Environmental Quality failed to treat the corrosive water, which ate into the city’s iron and lead pipes, causing lead to leach into the drinking water.

The next year, researchers and medical personnel discovered high levels of lead in residents, especially children. Lead has been tied to a host of medical problems, especially in the nervous system.

People experienced rashes and hair loss when high levels of lead were found in the local water supply.

The city switched back to the Lake Huron water supply in October 2015. In January 2016, the governor declared a state of emergency, one month after the city’s mayor did.

Flint leaders have said the lead level of the city’s water supply has been reduced since the city switched back to Lake Huron, but they still urge residents to install water filters in their homes. The state has handed out free water filters, which the city recommends residents use before drinking or cooking with Flint tap water.

Jones, the Flint senior citizen, said she wasn’t sure whether pipes leading to her apartment complex were identified as being among the housing units that needed service pipes replaced.

She doesn’t care; she is shaken enough by the initial crisis.

“They keep telling me the water is safe to use (with filters) … but to me, if you still have to use filters, then the water isn’t safe,” she said.

CNN’s Sara Ganim, Ray Sanchez and Sarah Jorgensen contributed to this report.