Benton Harbor lead line replacement nears completion
- Four years after the start of Benton Harbor’s lead crisis, 99 percent of lead service lines have been replaced
- State officials say work remains to eliminate in-home lead hazards throughout the city
- Benton Harbor now must decide how to deliver water to residents amid funding shortfalls
Benton Harbor is poised to finish replacing the city’s lead service lines months ahead of schedule, but state and local officials say more work is needed to protect residents from lead exposure.
State officials announced Wednesday that the lead line replacement work is 99 percent done, with 4,500 pipes either replaced or verified as containing no lead, and fewer than 40 left to inspect.
The milestone comes just over a year after the city launched an accelerated effort to remove lead service lines amid public outcry over the city’s years-long lead crisis. The effort was originally anticipated to take until next spring.
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In a statement, Benton Harbor City Manager Ellis Mitchell hailed the work’s early near-completion as “a tremendous accomplishment.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer attributed the early milestone to “all our partners and most importantly, the Michiganders who did the hard work of replacing these lines.”
A prominent local activist cheered the progress too, while noting that the state’s announcement came days before an election at a time when candidates are eager to celebrate wins. Whitmer, a Democratic incumbent, is running for re-election against Republican Tudor Dixon.
Lead is a toxic metal that can cause severe and permanent damage to children’s developing brains, triggering learning and behavioral problems and other ailments. Though no amount is safe to ingest, state and federal oversight kicks in when more than 10 percent of samples taken from a water system exceed 15 parts per billion.
Benton Harbor exceeded that threshold repeatedly beginning in 2018. But efforts to replace the city’s lead pipes moved slowly, while city and state leaders hoped anti-corrosion chemicals would keep lead from leaching out of pipes and into resident’s drinking water.
As city water samples continued to exceed allowable levels, and a coalition of local, state and national groups last summer petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to get involved. That sparked an accelerated state response, including a deal between Whitmer and the Republican-led legislature to allocate millions of dollars to speed up pipe replacement.
Rev. Edward Pinkney leads the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, one of several groups behind the EPA petition.
“I’m ecstatic,” Pinkney said of the pipe replacement milestone, though he added that work remains to ensure all Benton Harbor homes are ridded of lead pipes and internal plumbing fixtures that can leach lead into water.
“I do believe that with it being an election year, the Republican party was about to hit a thousand talking points if (replacing lead lines) didn’t get done,” Pinkney said. “The governor didn’t do this out of the kindness of her heart.”
While celebrating the milestone, state health officials noted that work remains to eliminate lead hazards from Benton Harbor homes.
Many water samples with the highest lead readings came not from lead service lines, but from lead-containing plumbing fixtures inside homes. Because lead plumbing solder and lead paint weren’t banned until late in the 20th century, they are common hazards in older homes.
An announcement from the state said filters and bottled water will continue to be available to Benton Harbor residents. The state has also made in-home lead abatement available to all city residents.
“It’s important that Benton Harbor families continue to use filters or bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula until they have their free home lead inspection from (the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services) to ensure there are not additional sources of lead in their homes from paint or plumbing,” state health Director Elizabeth Hertel said in a statement.
Pinkney said he expects to continue passing out bottled water to Benton Harbor residents until springtime.
Still uncertain is how the shrinking, high-poverty city will address problems at the city water treatment plant arising from a lack of funds to maintain the hulking piece of infrastructure.
Federal regulators last year ordered the city to consider its options for delivering clean water to residents over the long-term, including closing the plant and getting water from a neighboring community. A draft analysis completed last month shows that every option, from keeping the plant, to shutting it down and switching to well water, to getting water from a neighboring community, would involve additional rate increases.
Benton Harbor residents who still have not had their service lines inspected can fill out forms online to allow contractors to access their property to inspect and replace service lines, or submit forms via mail to Abonmarche, 95 West Main Street, Benton Harbor, MI 49022, or via email.
Lead service lines continue to challenge communities across the state and country. There are an estimated 10 million nationwide, and hundreds of thousands in Michigan, which has among the highest rates of lead service lines in the country. Lead levels in samples from nine water supplies currently exceed state standards.
Under state rule change made in 2018 in response to the Flint water crisis, communities across Michigan have until 2041 to eliminate lead lines from their drinking water systems.
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