DETROIT — A federal judge listened Tuesday to Flint residents who were victims of the city’s lead-contaminated water, a step in determining whether she should sign off on a $641 million deal that would settle claims against the state of Michigan.
More than a dozen people without lawyers signed up to speak, all in opposition. Thousands more are represented by attorneys who negotiated the settlement with Michigan and other parties and urged approval a day earlier.
“This is a little unusual,” said U.S. District Judge Judith Levy, who left her courthouse in Ann Arbor for a courtroom 55 miles (90 kilometers) away in Genesee County. The hearing was livestreamed on YouTube.
The settlement fund includes $600 million from Michigan and $20 million from Flint. Attorneys are seeking $200 million in fees so the amount of money available to Flint residents is far less than $641 million.
“The lawyers are making out like fat rats,” Audrey Young-Muhammed complained to the judge.
Money would be available to every Flint child who was exposed to the water, adults who can show an injury, landlords, business owners and anyone who paid water bills. More than 50,000 people have filed claims in a city with a population of roughly 95,000. Kids are supposed to get 80% of the money.
Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a written statement that the deal provides relief and prevents a “drawn out legal back-and-forth.”
But the Rev. Freelon Threlkeld, addressing the judge, described the settlement as “some crumbs.”
“You may not rescind this settlement, but at the end of the day, you and all the other lawyers are going to pay for what you’ve done to the have-nots,” the Baptist minister said.
In 2014, state-appointed managers running Flint switched to water from the Flint River. But the water wasn’t treated to reduce corrosion, causing lead to be released from inside old pipes. The water was also blamed for a spike in Legionnaires’ disease.
Former Mayor Karen Weaver, who was elected in response to the crisis, said the settlement was inadequate, especially when compared to the number of victims and amount of money — $500 million — set aside in a sexual assault scandal at Michigan State University.
“This is not justice for Flint,” Weaver said. “We ask you today to become the government and the judicial system that we can begin to trust.”
Levy earlier said she can only approve or reject the settlement, not veto specific provisions.
Separately, a state attorney responded to criticism from doctors that some lawyers for Flint residents were using a risky portable device to scan people’s bones for lead. The results can lead to higher compensation for victims.
State regulators inspected the site but do not have authority to declare whether a scanner is “safe or unsafe,” Assistant Attorney General Margaret Bettenhausen told the judge.
“They work to ensure that the bone scans will be conducted in compliance with state laws and regulations, and that’s exactly what happened,” she said.
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