Melissa Mays is photographed outside her home in Flint, Mich., Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. Mays sued the state on behalf her three sons, saying they have had medical and educational difficulties.
( AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
Tanzina Vega: Last week, Michigan announced that a preliminary agreement was reached to settle multiple lawsuits against the state for its role in the Flint water crisis. If the settlement is approved, up to $600 million could be made available to Flint residents who have suffered the effects of lead poisoning after a city's water supply was redirected in 2014. Roughly 80% of the funds are earmarked for children with the vast majority going to residents who were under the age of six at the time of their exposure.
The settlements still has to be approved by a federal judge. This leaves Flint residents continuing to grapple with the lifelong consequences of lead exposure as they await the opportunity for some financial relief. Joining me now is Leon EL-Alamin, founder and executive director of the M.A.D.E Institute, a nonprofit based in Flint that works with formerly incarcerated people. Hi, Leon. Welcome to the takeaway.
Leon EL-Alamin: Hello, hello, how are you?
Tanzina: I'm well, thank you. Nayyirah Shariff is the director of Flint Rising, an environmental justice organization. Nayyirah, welcome to the show.
Nayyirah Shariff: Thanks for having me on.
Tanzina: Let's start with you Nayyirah. What reactions have you been hearing from members of the Flint community about the terms of the settlement so far?
Nayyirah: A sense of closure, shock, anger. I will say most importantly, the realization that this monetary compensation will not be enough to deal with the long term physical and mental health impacts that our community is facing as a result of the largest public health disaster in the history of the United States.
Tanzina: Remind us what some of the health effects are that you and others have suffered because of the Flint water crisis.
Nayyirah: Myself, I now have non-epileptic seizures. I have severe asthma for the past three years. I have also gotten pneumonia because of the upper respiratory issues I now face on a daily basis.
Tanzina: Leon, how do you feel about the terms of the settlement so far?
Leon: It's mixed. On one end, it's a sense of some form of closure. On the other hand, as you read through so far what's been presented to the public, it's some concerns. As you read into how the distribution of funding, some requirements currently right now for adults to be compensated is a major issue. On a personal level with me, and in particular, I feel like everyone who was here was affected in some kind of way and there shouldn't be any stipulations or red tape to accessing any compensation that may be coming. The effects that this has done to us mentally, psychologically, physically on so many levels is just a great first step, but it's definitely not enough. I'm really looking forward to continuing the process of litigation and looking to drive this issue in the courts with others.
Tanzina: I want to talk a little bit about a couple of points that you just raised, Leon. You mentioned that, according to the settlement, children who were exposed to lead are presumed to have suffered an injury, but adults need to submit a different form of proof before they get any compensation from this. Nayyirah, what do you make of that? You are someone who has suffered physical injury from this water crisis.
Nayyirah: Fighting for first the restoration of democracy and then fighting for acknowledgment that there was lead in the water, and fighting for just the long term reparations for this community has consumed nine years of my life. For me, it echoes back when we were fighting for acknowledgment that there was something wrong with our water. Also now that we have to prove that we were adversely impacted using census data and using the portion of the settlement that adults will be eligible for is about $1,200 and that is a blatant insult.
Tanzina: Why do you say that it's an insult? Is it because the cost of your care, it far exceeds the settlement payment that you would get or other reasons?
Nayyirah: The amount and then also the things that this community has been advocating for as a result of the water crisis is not in existence in the settlement. We wanted lifetime health care for all residents because we're not sure what's going to manifest as we age. One of the other things we also wanted was for everyone's pipes to be replaced. Their all of their internal plumbing to be replaced, and that also is not in the settlement.
Tanzina: Leon, you mentioned earlier that you're interested in seeing this battle continue to be played out in the courts. The proposed settlement would resolve most of the claims against the state but there's still an ongoing criminal probe into the official response. What do you want to see happen here?
Leon: In regards to everyone that was involved from the federal, state, local, and county levels, if they knew about it, played a role, and had their hands in it, became quiet behind it, they need to be prosecuted as well. This has really affected our community on many levels, divided us, exhausted us. People have left because they can't continue to deal and move forward with this type of trauma on top of what we're dealing with COVID and so forth now.
Definitely there needs to be criminal charges brought to everyone that's involved with the KWA, the water source that we was originally trying to get tapped on to before the switch came on down, you name it. They all had a hand in it. We've seen some individuals who are benefiting politically off of it. That rubs me the wrong way and a lot of residents in this city, the wrong way and seeing how this is played out.
It's unfortunate because we can quickly incarcerate and charge individuals for selling weed and things like that and not clear their records after this has been made legal but here we are, a city that has been poisoned and over 100 individuals have died and people are still sick and suffering, and we still don't know the long term effects and no one has been charged, charges has been dropped. This is a political chess move at the same time and individuals are just finding a way to get from up under it, and I think that's a tragedy, and we definitely want to see criminal charges taking place.
Tanzina: Nayyirah, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer released a video statement shortly after the settlement was announced, and here's a little bit of what she had to say.
Gretchen Whitmer: We recognize that the settlement may not completely provide all that Flint needs and that many will still feel justifiable frustration with a system and structure that at times is not adequate to fully address what's happened to the people in Flint over the last six years. We hear and respect those voices and understand that healing Flint will take a long time.
Tanzina: Your response.
Nayyirah: It really seems very pat because I know that I have personally spoken to the governor multiple times and we had organized multiple ways of Flint residents to talk about the reparations and justice that they deserve. I guess I'm tired of dragging my lead poisoned body all over the country to try to get justice because it's always on people who have been traumatized to advocate for the ending of their own trauma.
Tanzina: The city as well as the rest of the country is still dealing with the COVID-19 global pandemic. How has that affected what's already been a community that's been disproportionately hurt by poisoned water?
Leon: More trauma on top of trauma, and we have a health crisis on top of the health crisis. We're losing more people. People are dying, lives that can't be replaced. This has psychologically and physically worn us out for the state and other individuals want us to continue to just accept apologies and whatever little bit of compensation and other hoops and hurdles that you got to go through. I think it's an insult.
You get to a point to where you want to break, you're tired. The effects of the lead and COVID is wearing itself out on us. It's really a tragedy to just have individuals who come on and give nice speeches, back even when we have former President Obama came to Flint Northwest and I was there, front row, and made the attempt as just he was drinking the Flint water. That was an insult. What they should be happier that hasn't happened is what we've seen in Minnesota, what we've seen in Portland when enough is enough.
Tanzina: Leon, you have a young son. How has he been affected by the lead crisis and the upheaval and everything else that's been happening?
Leon: Oh, man. It's a struggle every day being a single parent raising my son. He was affected from his skin to rashes, to hair loss, and then I'm just monitoring his development as we move forward. I had an opportunity to get him away from the Flint water the last few years and I'm just trying to recover and just see his development, really paying attention to it. It's something I'm monitoring, but it's been a struggle. It's a struggle going to the doctors, medical bills, you name it.
Tanzina: Leon EL-Alamin is the executive director of the M.A.D.E Institute which works with formerly incarcerated individuals and Nayyirah Shariff is the director of Flint Rising, an environmental justice organization. Thanks to you both.
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