From PBB to PFAS to Lead: Will Government Ever Learn?


When a coalition of citizen groups, including FLOW, last fall urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect the nearly 10,000 residents of Benton Harbor from lead in their drinking water, it was a reminder that government officials have failed to heed the lessons of a half-century of Michigan environmental health disasters.

Once again, Michigan’s state government had failed to act with urgency to protect the public from toxic contaminants.

Once again, Michigan’s state government had failed to act with urgency to protect the public from toxic contaminants.

This week, seeking to protect Benton Harbor residents from lead as well as hoping to head off further criticism, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services promised to continue providing bottled water to the community until all lead pipes are replaced.

Last fall’s petition, coordinated by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, called on the EPA to prevent continuing lead exposure to the drinking water utility customers in the city. The petition came only after officials in Michigan’s Departments of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and Health and Human Services moved sluggishly to address the problem of lead in Benton Harbor’s drinking water pipelines and tap water.

Coming just eight years after the infamous lead poisoning of the people of Flint, the Benton Harbor crisis once again demonstrated the inability or unwillingness of government agencies to mobilize quickly to protect public health—and their refusal, in some cases, to communicate openly with citizens about risk.

The road to Benton Harbor can be said to begin in St. Louis, Michigan, in the spring of 1973.

St. Louis, Michigan, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The road to Benton Harbor can be said to begin in St. Louis, Michigan, in the spring of 1973. The Michigan Chemical Company produced both a toxic flame retardant, PBB, sold under the trade name FireMaster, and a cattle feed supplement sold under the trade name NutriMaster. A shortage of preprinted paper bag containers led to bags of PBB accidentally being sent to Michigan Farm Bureau Services in place of NutriMaster. This accident was not recognized until the spring of 1974.

PBB had entered the food chain through milk and other dairy products, beef products, and contaminated swine, sheep, chickens, and eggs. As a result of this incident, more than 500 contaminated Michigan farms were quarantined, and approximately 30,000 cattle, 4,500 swine, 1,500 sheep, and 1.5 million chickens were destroyed, along with more than 800 tons of animal feed, 18,000 pounds of cheese, 2,500 pounds of butter, 5 million eggs, and 34,000 pounds of dried milk products.

Even worse, millions of Michigan citizens ingested PBB, with unknown health impacts. To the most affected farm families, however, health effects have been palpable.

To compound the disaster, state government health officials dismissed public concerns about the impact of PBB until their complacency was exposed by test results from contaminated farm animals. Even then, they expressed skepticism about human health impacts. The resulting loss of public confidence in the state’s response and in the administration of Governor William Milliken left scars for years.

Flint bottled water photo courtesy of White Pine Press, NMC’s student-run newspaper

The 2014 Flint disaster demonstrated historical amnesia.

The 2014 Flint disaster demonstrated historical amnesia. After a state-appointed emergency manager authorized a shift in the source of the city’s drinking water from the safe metropolitan Detroit supply to the Flint River, whose chemistry corroded the interior of water pipes and released lead, citizens complained about the look and taste of their drinking water. At first, state officials said the water was safe and mocked a lead study undertaken by Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards. Ultimately, two state department heads lost their jobs as it became clear that the 99,000 residents of Flint had absorbed lead at levels of concern, and then-Governor Rick Snyder was forced to apologize for his administration’s inadequate response. Snyder still faces criminal charges related to the disaster.

The Snyder administration also blundered in dealing with a class of toxic compounds known as PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals” because they do not readily break down in the environment.

The Snyder administration also blundered in dealing with a class of toxic compounds known as PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals” because they do not readily break down in the environment. When scientist Robert Delaney of what was then the Department of Environmental Quality warned of widespread PFAS contamination in Michigan, his concerns were largely brushed aside. It turned out that the scientist was correct–PFAS have been identified at approximately 200 sites in Michigan and are suspected at hundreds more locations. Citizens have been exposed to chemicals shown to cause serious health effects in laboratory animals, and it will cost hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to clean up the PFAS messes.

To her credit, Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s first executive directive after she took office in 2019 encouraged state employees to come forward to her office if they had reason to believe in a significant threat to the public health and welfare and were concerned the state was not acting swiftly enough. The Governor also promised transparency in addressing environmental health concerns.

It was surprising, then, that EGLE officials delayed for more than eight months telling residents of 18 homes in East Bay Township near Traverse City that the state was investigating the possible presence of PFAS in their private drinking water wells.

It was surprising, then, that EGLE officials delayed for more than eight months telling residents of 18 homes in East Bay Township near Traverse City that the state was investigating the possible presence of PFAS in their private drinking water wells. Saying they did not want to alarm citizens unnecessarily, they provoked outrage when the well testing showed PFAS. The homeowners were understandably angry. Some might have taken precautions to avoid even the chance of exposure to the pollutants. Eventually, their homes were connected to a safe municipal drinking water supply, but it is not known how long the residents were exposed.

That brings us back to Benton Harbor. Elevated lead levels were detected in city tap water for three years–at levels as much as 60 times higher than health standards–without effective state or local government action, until the coalition of community and environmental groups filed the September 2021 petition. This galvanized an emergency order from EPA and promises from Governor Whitmer to move expeditiously to replace the city’s lead drinking water pipes.

But as the Reverend Edward Pinkney, President of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council (BHCWC) wrote, This news has been tough to swallow especially after seeing the devastation of Flint, because we know that it’s the kids whose health will be hit hardest by this crisis. Too many parents of Benton Harbor are feeling overwhelmed thinking that they have failed their children through no fault of their own.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer visits the first lead service line replacement construction site in Benton Harbor on Nov. 9, 2021.

Government exists to serve the people. In the face of a confirmed or suspected environmental health threat, the first response of officials ought to be concern and action, not denial and delay.

Government exists to serve the people. In the face of a confirmed or suspected environmental health threat, the first response of officials ought to be concern and action, not denial and delay. We can only hope that 50 years from now, a new generation of Michiganders does not have to learn the same hard lesson at a significant cost to human health.

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