"The children of Flint will carry the scars of their poisoning for the rest of their lives," Erin Brockovich says of the water crisis' impact

Erin Brokovich
Erin Brockovich
| Credit: JONO SEARLE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Erin Brockovich is celebrating news that Michigan is expected to pay $600 million to the victims of the Flint Water Crisis.

"Power to the people," the environmental and consumer advocate, 60, tells PEOPLE ahead of the state officially announcing their multi-million dollar settlement on Friday.

"As corny as this sounds, this community stuck together and they saw this through," Brockovich continues. "This has taken six years and the world has moved on, but this town had the 'stick-to-itivenes' to get to this point. The wheels of justice can move slowly but this is a great day."

"Once again, we see that it costs much less in lives and treasure to do things the right way in the first place," she adds. "Cutting corners always costs more and the children of Flint will carry the scars of their poisoning for the rest of their lives."

Brockovich rose to fame by nearly singlehandedly exposing how a power company had been contaminating the groundwater in Hinkley, California, which inspired Julia Roberts' Oscar-winning 2001 movie, fittingly titled Erin Brockovich.

The real-life Brockovich has spent the last few years helping moms across the country in their fight for clean water. She joined forces with the mothers from Flint in late 2014 after they reached out to her with concerns about the tainted water supply, and she's been credited with sounding the alarm.

Flint Water Plant
Flint Water Plant
| Credit: Carlos Osorio/AP/Shutterstock

Michigan's $600 million settlement follows more than two years of negotiations over the thousands of children and adults who were affected by the water crisis in Flint, attorney Corey Stern confirms to PEOPLE.

Stern, who is representing 2,600 child victims and their families, says 80 percent of the money will be issued to kids who were under 18 during the water crisis, marking the largest amount of money a state government has paid to a group of children in the history of the U.S.

Of that percentage, 65 percent is expected to go towards children that are 6 and younger, as "those are the ones most vulnerable to brain damage from exposure to lead," Stern says.

"The settlement treats every kid differently," Stern explains, adding that the children "will be evaluated on the merits of their claims."

"What lead poisoning does is it takes away their potential and their future because of the horrible cognitive effects they develop," he notes. "[The settlement] will try to honor every kid based on the damage and issues they have sustained over the course of their life and even those that are projected into the future."

Lead exposure causes long-term harm in both children and adults, though it is particularly harmful to young children. Children exposed to lead can suffer reduced IQ, shortened attention spans, learning disabilities and behavioral issues, the World Health Organization notes. The effects of lead exposure are irreversible.

Flint water crisis
Bottled water for the residents in Flint
| Credit: Carlos Osorio/AP/Shutterstock

The crisis first began in 2014 after Flint's water supply was switched from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department's water to water from the Flint River, PEOPLE reported in 2016.

At the time, residents grew concerned when they started experiencing health issues, including fluctuating blood pressure, achy muscles, rashes and thinning hair, and also noticed a strange color and scent of the water coming out of their faucets. Tests ordered in August of that year revealed E. coli was in Flint's water, and parts of the city were ordered to boil the water before drinking it.

For over a year, elected officials denied that the city’s water was also contaminated with lead, but they finally admitted that the water wasn’t safe in September 2015.

That same month, a study released by doctors at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint found that the proportion of children and infants with above-average levels of lead in their blood had nearly doubled since the city began using the Flint River as its water source.

RELATED VIDEO: Flint Doctor Exposes Lead Water Crisis and Helps the Most Vulnerable: 'We’re Not Giving Up on These Kids'

Flint resumed using the Detroit water system as its main water source by late October, but at that point, thousands of the city’s children had already been exposed. By December, Michigan had declared a state of emergency.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the water sourced from the Flint River reportedly had high levels of lead as it is more corrosive than other water sources and therefore drew toxic metal out of the city’s water pipes.

In the years since, city and state officials have been working to help the Flint residents, many of whom still opt to use bottled water for cooking, drinking and bathing as a precaution, the New York Times reported.

Last week, Mayor Sheldon Neeley announced that the project to replace lead service lines — initially planned to be completed by January 2020 but forced to pause amid the coronavirus pandemic — was in its final phase with less than 2,500 Flint homes still awaiting line replacement, according to the Times.

Those who were living in Flint between 2014 and 2016 may be eligible for a claim in the settlement, and the victims will start receiving their payments in spring 2021, the Times reported.