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Federal watchdog will probe EPA response to Benton Harbor water crisis

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After the Flint water crisis, federal regulators adopted a new policy that was supposed to ensure quicker resolution to future public health emergencies. Now, a federal watchdog wants to know whether they followed that policy in another Michigan town with problem water, Benton Harbor. (Bridge file photo)

After coming under fire for their slow response to the Flint water crisis, federal regulators adopted a new policy that was supposed to ensure quicker resolution to future public health emergencies. 

Now, a federal watchdog wants to know whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency followed the policy in Benton Harbor.

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The EPA Office of Inspector General said it will probe the agency’s response to a yearslong water crisis stemming from elevated lead levels in the city’s drinking water.

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The audit, announced Friday, follows local water activists’ complaints that indifference by local, state and federal officials helped allow Benton Harbor’s lead problems to fester for years.

In a Feb. 18 letter, Michael Davis, a director in the EPA’s Office of Audit, directed agency officials to turn over staff training documents and any complaints they received regarding Benton Harbor. 

Auditors want to know whether EPA followed its “Policy on Elevation of Critical Public Health Issues” after lead problems came to light in the majority Black, low-income city in Southwest Michigan. That policy, created in response to the Flint water crisis, calls for the EPA to “elevate” its response to substantial public health threats, particularly when other authorities appear not to be adequately addressing the problem.

“The anticipated benefits of this audit are to determine if the EPA can improve the speed at which public health protections are delivered to communities facing imminent and substantial public health risks,” Davis wrote.

In a statement, an EPA spokesperson said agency officials “look forward” to the watchdog’s review and intend to cooperate fully.

“No family should ever have to worry about the water coming from their tap and the Benton Harbor community is no exception,” agency spokesperson Taylor Gillespie said Monday. “EPA is committed to ensuring that everyone has access to clean drinking water and addressing lead in drinking water.”

State health officials began providing water filters to residents shortly after routine testing first revealed elevated lead levels in late 2018. The crisis continued for three years, largely flying under the public radar until last summer, when activists petitioned the EPA for emergency intervention.

That petition followed earlier fruitless efforts to get the EPA’s attention, said Cyndi Roper, a senior Michigan advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

When activists complained to the EPA that state officials were not taking the lead crisis seriously, Roper said, federal regulators continued “just deferring to what was clearly an inadequate response by the state.”

Within weeks of the petition, that changed. State officials began urging Benton Harbor residents to drink only bottled water, the EPA launched probes into the safety of the city’s water supply, and lawmakers secured millions of dollars to remove lead pipes from underground.

Water activists argue all of those efforts could and should have happened sooner. They said they hope by pointing out any flaws in the EPA’s response to Benton Harbor, the inspector general’s report will result in a swifter response to future water crises.

“Maybe the very next community that has this issue, they will become more proactive and not wait three years for anything to be done,” said Rev. Edward Pinkney, a local activist who leads the Benton Harbor Community Water Council.

While the inspector general begins its review, EPA officials are awaiting results of a study to test the efficacy of filters used to strip lead out of Benton Harbor residents’ water at the tap. EPA officials say those studies should be completed by the end of the month. 

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“Preliminary results confirm that when filters are properly installed, they’re very effective at reducing lead,” said Gillespie, the EPA spokesperson.

Activists have questioned whether the filter study is enough to assure residents their water is safe, in light of revelations last fall that lead is not the only threat. Federal regulators in November ordered Benton Harbor to fix a range of problems that have left the water plant unable to reliably deliver clean water, from failing equipment to inadequate staffing.

State officials announced earlier this month that they’ll continue to offer free bottled water in Benton Harbor until all of the city’s lead lines are removed. To date, 450 of the city’s estimated 4,322 lead service lines have been replaced, according to a public database.

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