Michigan Declines to Appeal Ruling, Will Pay $300K to Worker Fired in Flint Water Scandal

The fallout from Flint's water scandal continued Friday when the state of Michigan agreed to pay $300,000 to the only employee fired as a result of lead-contaminated water in the city, the Associated Press reported.

Liane Shekter Smith, who was head of the state's water drinking division, was fired in 2016. An arbitrator said she was wrongfully terminated as a result of the state searching for a "public scapegoat" during one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.

Michigan decided not to appeal the ruling. The deadline to do so came this week. The state also paid Shekter Smith more than she was originally due in back pay and compensation, elevating the payout from $191,880 to $300,000. Michigan could have fought to lower the arbiter's recommended payout number if it appealed.

"A condition of the settlement is that she will not seek her job back. And her involuntary resignation will be changed to a voluntary one," Hugh McDiarmid Jr., spokesman for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, told AP.

Flint's water was pulled from the Flint River to save money in 2014-15. The decision was made by state-appointed managers who were running the declining city. In 2015, rising lead levels, particularly among children, were noted. Eventually, the state government acknowledged a water crisis in Flint.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Flint water, Scandal, Payments
The state of Michigan said Friday it agreed to pay $300,000 to the only employee who was fired as a result of lead-contaminated water in Flint. The agreement with Liane Shekter Smith, who was head of the state’s drinking water division, came weeks after an arbitrator said she was wrongly fired in 2016 by officials who were likely looking for a “public scapegoat” in one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. Above, Shekter Smith listens during a preliminary examination in the cases of four defendants, all former or current officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, in Flint on February 5, 2018. (Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP, File) Associated Press

This latest deal is just part of a swath of litigation and issues following the crisis.

"The department has decided to agree to the settlement amount of $300,000, which resolves the dispute and allows both the agency and Ms. Shekter Smith to move forward," McDiarmid said.

The highly corrosive water drawn in 2014-15 wasn't properly treated before it flowed to roughly 100,000 residents, eroding protective coatings inside the aging pipes. As a result, lead was released from those pipes.

The Department of Environmental Quality was sharply criticized for not requiring corrosion control additives when Flint switched water sources. Specialists inside the agency insisted that results from 12 months of water sampling were necessary first, despite early troublesome lead readings and protests from angry residents who told stories of health woes and held up containers of foul water.

Some critics said the disaster in majority-Black Flint was an example of environmental racism.

There was a "failure of leadership," Keith Creagh, who fired Shekter Smith, testified during the arbitration hearing last spring.

He dismissed her in 2016 shortly after taking control of the department at Snyder's request.

"I found no record of Ms. Shekter-Smith, as they would say, throwing the flag. Saying that this is significant. The people of Flint have lead in their water. We need additional help," Creagh said, according to a transcript.

Shekter Smith told the arbitrator that she relied on her field staff to make critical decisions about Flint's water system.

"It's a community water system that was obviously having some issues," she said, referring to 2014, the first year of using the Flint River. "I'm keeping an eye on being kept informed, keeping my management informed, but there were a lot of other things going on in the office at the time."

After her firing, Shekter Smith was charged with misconduct in office and neglect of duty. She was also put on notice that an involuntary manslaughter case would be pursued because bacteria in the water were linked to a fatal outbreak of Legionnaires' disease.

But charges were dropped in 2019 in exchange for a no-contest plea to an obscure misdemeanor. The case was erased after a year, under a deal with special prosecutor Todd Flood.