A federal judge approved a deal Tuesday to replace water lines at 18,000 homes in Flint, Michigan, marking a permanent fix to overcome the disastrous decision in 2014 to draw water from a river without treating it to prevent lead contamination.
Flint will be responsible for replacing lead and galvanized-steel lines that bring water into homes. The cost could be as high as $97 million, with federal and state governments covering the bill. Pipes at more than 700 homes have been replaced so far.
The court-ordered pipe replacement is unprecedented in the United States, said lead attorney Dimple Chaudhary of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The organization sued Flint and Michigan on behalf of residents, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
"Flint proved that even while poisoned, we're not just victims," said resident Melissa Mays, a plaintiff in the case. "We're fighters."
Flint's water was tainted with lead for at least 18 months, starting in spring 2014. While under the control of state-appointed financial managers, the city tapped the Flint River as its water source while a new pipeline was being built to Lake Huron. But the river water wasn't treated to reduce corrosion. As a result, lead leached from old pipes and fixtures.
Under the new agreement, pipes serving 18,000 homes will be replaced by January 2020. Michigan will continue to provide water filters, but the state can start closing free bottled water sites in Flint depending on demand and results of water quality tests.
U.S. District Judge David Lawson approved the settlement, which was the result of weeks of negotiations involving a court-appointed mediator. The judge praised Gov. Rick Snyder for suggesting negotiations after his administration lost two major court rulings on door-to-door water delivery.
Lawson said the settlement was "fair, adequate, reasonable, consistent with the public interest."
Marc Edwards, an expert at Virginia Tech who in 2015 warned about dangerous lead levels after state regulators repeatedly dismissed the concerns, said the agreement is a good deal for Flint's roughly 100,000 residents.
He told The Associated Press that with improved water quality, temporary use of filters and new pipes, "Flint residents really have nothing to worry about other than the lost trust and history of this disaster, which may take a generation to repair."
Residents who get new water lines will be urged to continue using a filter for six months. There will be no cost for replacement cartridges or household testing kits.
There will be tests for lead in the Flint system every six months until one year after the replacement of water lines. An independent monitor also will check household water samples for lead, and the results will be posted online.