Spurred by Citizens, Michigan Speeds Up Getting the Lead Out of Benton Harbor’s Drinking Water Supply

By Dave Dempsey

In the end, it took outside intervention to begin moving the people of Benton Harbor toward a clean, safe water supply this fall. Why?

Despite three years of data showing that the city’s drinking water exceeded state standards for lead contamination, it wasn’t until the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center filed a petition with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on September 9 that the State of Michigan took decisive action to address the problem. The EPA followed suit with an order to the city on November 2 to improve disinfection and corrosion treatments at the water plant, monitor for disinfection byproducts, repair plant filters, and contract with a third party to study the long-term operation of the city’s drinking water system.

Lead is a neurotoxin that is especially dangerous to children. Among other things, it can damage the brain and central nervous system and lower IQ.

The citizen petition, which FLOW also joined, cited an “imminent and substantial endangerment” to health and urged the EPA to immediately order city and state officials to provide Benton Harbor residents with safe drinking water and full removal of the nearly 6,000 lead service lines delivering water to homes. Benton Harbor’s population is approximately 9,800 people.

Reverend Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, expressed impatience with the state and federal response to the city’s lead crisis. “For at least three years, the people of Benton Harbor have been waiting for safe drinking water uncontaminated by dangerous lead. But we are not willing to wait any longer. It’s urgent that the EPA intervene to give this community access to water that won’t harm our health, especially our children’s health,” he said.

“Michigan’s response to this lead-in-water crisis has been plagued by delay and failure,” said Cyndi Roper, senior Michigan advocate with NRDC. She added that environmental agencies were “already well aware of the significant damage inflicted on Michiganders’ lives by lead-contaminated drinking water,” referring to the emergency in Flint that exposed approximately 99,000 residents to lead in drinking water in 2014 and 2015.

The citizen petition to the EPA also galvanized Governor Whitmer, who on October 14 issued a directive calling for an “all-hands-on-deck, whole-of-government approach” to rectifying Benton Harbor’s drinking water crisis. The order directed state agencies to:

  • Provide free bottled water to the residents of Benton Harbor until further notice. 
  • Offer free or low-cost, lead-related services including, but not limited to, drinking water testing and health services. 
  • Collaborate closely with federal partners, county officials, city officials, and community leaders to communicate up-to-date information and leverage every available resource to accelerate lead service line replacement.

Gov. Whitmer visited Benton Harbor on October 19 to hear from local leaders and stress her personal attention to the problem. She asked the Legislature for an immediate $11.4 million to remove lead pipes. The state’s goal is to remove all lead pipes in the city in 18 months by early 2023. Whitmer also visited Benton Harbor on Nov. 9 to witness the removal of the first lead pipes.

In a further response to the Benton Harbor emergency, the Governor issued a six-point executive directive on November 4 to improve the state’s water protections. One point directed state agencies to conduct a “line-by-line review of existing laws and regulations governing water. The review will recommend reforms that could include legislation, amendments to existing rules, new rules, and executive reorganization,” she said.

The state delay in responding to Benton Harbor was puzzling in light of the early actions the Whitmer Administration took to avoid a repeat of the Flint disaster, including a policy calling for state employees to come forward with information about potential environmental health threats, and the creation of a Clean Water Public Advocate within the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. The Advocate’s mission is to ensure that drinking water concerns are investigated and that trends are analyzed.

The federal infrastructure bill approved by Congress last week contains $15 billion for removal of lead water pipes nationwide. Michigan also has $5.7 billion in unspent federal funds from last winter’s COVID relief package. Some of that money could also be spent for lead pipe removal. Estimates for replacement of all lead water pipes in Michigan range as high as $1.5 billion.

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