10 years of Flint water crisis: How it happened, where things stand

FLINT, Mich. – It’s been 10 years since the tragic Flint water crisis began. One moment one decade ago set thousands of residents on a scary and dangerous path.

With the flip of a switch, thousands of children were exposed to high lead levels from the drinking water in the city of Flint. Now, a decade later, the effects of the water crisis were still being felt in the Vehicle City.

Over the past 10 years, there have been changes in the right direction. But many problems still remain.

“People are tired, disappointed, and let down,” Karen Weaver, mayor of Flint at the onset of the water crisis, told Local 4 last year. “That’s how we’ve been. So, I don’t know if it’s changed, because that’s how we’ve been for such a long time.”

DETROIT, MI - MARCH 03: Demonstrators demand action from the Republican presidential candidates about the water crisis in Flint outside the historic Fox Theater before the GOP presidential debate March 3, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) (2016 Getty Images)

How Flint water crisis began

Flint was in financial trouble in 2014, when a city manager appointed by then-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder made a money-saving decision to change the city’s water source. While a regional pipeline from Lake Huron was under construction, the manager decided to use water from the Flint River to supply the city.

The Flint River water was corrosive, however, and wasn’t properly treated. That water released lead from old plumbing into homes throughout Flint, causing one of the worst manmade environmental disasters in U.S. history.

Despite pleas from residents holding jugs of discolored, skunky water, the Snyder administration took no significant action until a doctor reported elevated lead levels in children about 18 months later.

“I’m sorry and I will fix it,” Snyder promised during his 2016 State of the State speech.

Authorities counted at least 90 cases of Legionnaires’ disease -- a serious type of pneumonia -- in Genesee County, including 12 deaths. Some experts found there wasn’t enough chlorine in the water treatment system to control legionella bacteria, which can trigger the severe lung infection when spread through misting and cooling systems.

---> Hank Winchester: 10 years later, effects of Flint water crisis remain

FLINT, MI - FEBRUARY 7: Saginaw Street in downton is shown on February 7, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. Months ago the city told citizens they could use tap water if they boiled it first, but now say it must be filtered to remove lead. (Photo by Sarah Rice/Getty Images) (2016 Getty Images)

What has happened since?

Over the past 10 years, tens of thousands of water lines have been inspected and replaced. Many still require work, though.

In March 2024, a federal judge found Flint in contempt for not complying with a court order that required the city to finish replacing the old lead pipes. In February, U.S. District Judge David Lawson said the city failed to meet deadlines outlined in his order from February 2023.

The city had agreed to replace the lead pipes by early 2020, but the work was not finished then. Almost 2,000 homes had curb, sidewalk, and lawn damage caused by the pipe replacements that still needed to be fixed, officials said this year.

Education and health programs related to the crisis have also been established since the crisis began.

In August 2020, a settlement was reached in a lawsuit filed against Flint on behalf of residents who were harmed by lead-tainted water. As of November 2020, it totaled about $641 million. That financial settlement was expected to pay out to the affected 45,000 Flint residents sometime this year.

While some may disagree with the number, the settlement agreement is what the plaintiffs’ attorneys agreed to, and the money will make its way to those impacted.

Two contractors -- Veolia North America and engineering firm Lockwood, Andrews & Newman -- recently reached settlements after being accused of being partially responsible for the water crisis. Veolia North America reached a $25 million settlement in February 2024. Lockwood, Andrews & Newman agreed to settle the lead-related lawsuits in July 2023.

The class-action lawsuit against Veolia North America will include $1,500 payments for individual minors, officials said.

The situation is different for criminal charges, however.

In September 2023, the Michigan Supreme Court rejected prosecutors last-chance effort to revive criminal charges against former Gov. Snyder and other Michigan officials involved in the water crisis. Prosecutors said last year that the high court’s decision to dismiss misdemeanor charges against Snyder would close the door on any criminal prosecution of government officials in this case.

In December 2023, a judge formally dismissed the misdemeanor charges against Snyder. The judge also ordered that Snyder’s police records and booking photo must be destroyed.

After several years, the Flint water crisis resulted in zero convictions.

“No one has been held accountable, but you see, people’s lives have been damaged in some people’s lives permanently,” Weaver said in 2023. “We’ve lost people.”

---> Hank Winchester: I’m mad, sad for Flint after water crisis results in no convictions

“The continued delay in settlement dollars reaching claimants is understandably a frustration to the victims. We are hopeful that the claims review process is soon finalized so that compensation will reach the victims in Flint as soon as possible.

“While we are not directly involved in the claims review process, we look forward to the settlement being fully implemented. For more on the delays and process, I would encourage you to reach out to the court-appointed Special Master overseeing the claims review process, Deborah Greenspan, whose contact information can be found here. We understand from the Special Master’s update during the recent status conference that it continues to advance; her and the claims administrators are reviewing claims materials and seeking required documents.”

Press Secretary Danny Wimmer

About the Authors

Hank Winchester is Local 4’s Consumer Investigative Reporter and the head of WDIV’s “Help Me Hank” Consumer Unit. Hank works to solve consumer complaints, reveal important recalls and track down thieves who have ripped off people in our community.

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.

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