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6 years after water crisis began, what has changed in Flint — and what hasn’t

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, exposed major health and environmental concerns for residents and prompted new scrutiny of access to clean drinking water in the U.S. But Flint is still grappling with the consequences of its crisis, including financial and legal liability. John Yang reports and talks to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who helped sound the alarm about Flint’s water.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, exposed major health and environmental concerns for residents of that city. It also prompted new scrutiny about the access of clean drinking water for millions of people around the country.

    As John Yang reports, Flint is still grappling with the consequences of that situation, and now the state will provide some financial relief for the city's youngest residents.

  • John Yang:

    Six years after the Flint water crisis began, crews are still replacing the lead pipes that made so many residents sick, and people are still relying on bottled water.

  • Maxine Onstott:

    We wake up, we brush our teeth with bottled water. We drink bottled water. We're out of bottled water, pack back up, let's get in the van, and go get some more bottled water.

  • John Yang:

    Today, Michigan officials announced a preliminary agreement to pay Flint residents $600 million to settle lawsuits filed against the state.

    Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who took office just last year:

  • Gov. Gretchen Whitmer:

    We reached this settlement because further delays were unacceptable. And I want to acknowledge that Flint residents have been beyond patient. We recognize that the settlement may not completely provide all that Flint needs.

    We hear and respect those voices and understand that healing Flint will take a long time.

  • John Yang:

    In April 2014, officials appointed by the state tried to save money by shifting the source of the city's drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River. But the more corrosive river water wasn't treated properly. As a result, lead, which can cause brain damage in children, leached into the drinking water from the city's aging pipes.

    Under the proposed settlement, nearly 80 percent of the money would go to those who were younger than 18 when the crisis began. The state would also set aside a fund to pay local schools for special education students, whose numbers have gone up more than 50 percent since the crisis began.

    Ariana Hawk's son developed blisters and a rash, and her daughter's blood tests show elevated lead levels.

  • Ariana Hawk:

    It's devastating. It's very hard to deal with on a daily basis. It's hard to even just deal with it as a parent, because, sometimes, I feel like I can do better.

    But it's not my fault that the water is like this. It's not something that I asked for. It's not something that I chose for my kids.

  • John Yang:

    The city stopped taking its drinking water from the Flint River in 2015, but the effects, medical and otherwise, still linger.

    The settlement must be approved by a federal judge, and doesn't affect other lawsuits against the federal EPA and engineering firms involved in the water project. In addition, a state criminal investigation is still under way.

    Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a Flint pediatrician. She was one of the first to sound the alarm about the water in Flint, and has become a leading advocate for the well-being of the city's children.

    Dr. Hanna-Attisha, thanks so much for being with us.

  • Mona Hanna-Attisha:

    It's always great to be with you.

  • John Yang:

    Eighty percent of the money from this fund is going to go to children affected by this. Is that a fitting acknowledgment of the disproportionate effect this has had on the children of Flint?

  • Mona Hanna-Attisha:

    I think so, John.

    And I was really reassured to hear at that the settlement process listened to the community's voices, it was very much informed by the community, but it also very much respected the science of what happened in Flint.

    It respected the recognition that there's no safe level of lead, that there was this population-wide lead exposure, and that our youngest children were going to be the most impacted by this trauma.

    So, you see that reflected in the settlement.

  • John Yang:

    And they have also set up a fund to fund special education in the local schools, which has mushroomed since this crisis began.

  • Mona Hanna-Attisha:

    Yes, that's fantastic news.

    Our schools are already under-resourced, underfunded. The pandemic has added another layer of educational inequities for our kids. So, to provide extra resources for our schools, especially for our kids who have special needs and need more of that support, that is fantastic news.

  • John Yang:

    Six hundred million dollars, it may sound like a lot, but when you consider that Flint's population is about 100,000, it may not necessarily be a lot for individuals, although there are all sorts of things that have to be determined before they can figure out who gets how much money.

    But beyond the dollars and cents, is there a — sort of a significance or a symbolic value in the state saying, yes, we are going to pay this money in this case?

  • Mona Hanna-Attisha:

    John, that's a great question. And that's something that I have really come to appreciate as a physician in Flint, the concept of restorative justice being so critical for healing and health and recovery.

    You can think of the Flint water crisis as a wound, as a scar. And without that symbolic gesture of justice and accountability, it's very hard for the people of Flint to move forward.

    So, we are grateful to everybody that has realized that, without restorative justice and some form of damages given to the people impacted, it's very difficult for us to move forward.

  • John Yang:

    You have also said that this is not the end of the story, that this settlement is not the end.

    What more needs to be done? What more in sort of long-term resources does the — does the city need?

  • Mona Hanna-Attisha:

    From the moment of recognizing really the scope of this crisis, top layers of inequities that we had in Flint, our work has been holistic, to wrap our children with evidence-based, science-based interventions to promote their health and development.

    And that's what we have been able to do in Flint through the work here in our clinic, where we give kids nutrition prescriptions, and early child care services, and school health services, and expanded Medicaid. So, this is long-term work. And we're really respecting the science of what kids need to be healthy.

    So, this settlement is great, but we also need the other long-term investments that have been granted by other state and federal resources, the continuation of our registry to follow folks over time.

  • John Yang:

    Give us a sense, six years on from this crisis beginning — and they're still replacing the water pipes. They say that they probably will hope to end sometime later this year — what you're seeing among your patients.

    What effects are you still seeing among your patients in Flint?

  • Mona Hanna-Attisha:

    That our children and the people of Flint are still suffering, that there are issues with health and development, and that, once again, it's great that we have these resources, because they're meeting these unmet needs that are ongoing in regards to this crisis.

  • John Yang:

    Very good.

    Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha from Flint, Michigan, thank you very much.

  • Mona Hanna-Attisha:

    Thank you, John.

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