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Michigan announces 18-month goal to remove Benton Harbor lead water lines

 Rev. Edward Pinkney
Rev. Edward Pinkney, who leads the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, stands near boxes of water filters the group plans to distribute in Benton Harbor. Pinkney has criticized local and state leaders for what he calls a slow and insufficient response to the city’s lead crisis. (Bridge photo by Kelly House)

Oct. 21: ‘What changed?’ Lawmakers press Whitmer admin on Benton Harbor’s water
Oct. 19: 
Michigan Legislature launches probe into Benton Harbor water crisis

Following weeks of local criticism, state officials on Thursday announced a more aggressive plan to provide clean water for Benton Harbor residents, including an 18-month timeline to replace the city’s lead service lines following at least three years of problems with lead-tainted water.

“Every Michigander deserves safe drinking water, and every community deserves lead-free pipes,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement Thursday announcing the lead removal plans, adding that “we will not rest until the job is done.”

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During a press conference Thursday in Benton Harbor, Lieutenant Gov. Garlin Gilchrist outlined an array of new efforts from the state, including expanded free bottled water distribution and free or low-cost water testing for Benton Harbor residents.

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Other actions include distributing ready-to-feed formula for low-income mothers and children in Benton Harbor and filing a notice with the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services that will enable some residents on Medicaid to obtain free in-home lead investigation and abatement services.

Whitmer signed an executive directive Thursday to launch the new efforts. The state is working to hire and pay Benton Harbor residents to staff water distribution sites and work on other response efforts, Gilchrist said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday signed an executive directive ordering the state to ramp up Michigan’s response to lead-tainted water in Benton Harbor, and set an 18-month goal to remove the city’s lead service lines. (Bridge file photo)

The announcement comes more than a month after a coalition of community, environmental and public health groups petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to get involved in Benton Harbor, arguing that local and state officials were putting residents in danger by failing to respond aggressively enough to the city’s water crisis.

Immediately after Benton Harbor’s lead problems emerged, local officials planned to stay on a 20-year timeline to remove the city’s lead pipes. 

Following public pressure, Whitmer in September announced a proposal to shorten the timeline to five years. By last week, officials with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy told Bridge an aggressive timeline for lead line replacement could take up to 24 months.

Thursday’s ever shorter timeline follows pressure from local activists who have urged city leaders to get the lead pipes out within 12 to 18 months.

Rev. Edward Pinkney, leader of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, which has spearheaded efforts to draw more attention to the water crisis, called Thursday’s announcement good news. 

But credit, he said, should go to local water activists, not government officials.

“I'm really really happy to see this is happening, but I want to wait until the work actually starts before I start applauding,” he said. 

 

It’s the second time the Whitmer administration has come under fire for its actions in Benton Harbor. As Bridge Michigan reported in 2019, the administration’s efforts to close the majority-Black city’s sole public high school prompted anger from residents. 

Since 2018, water samples taken from Benton Harbor residences have repeatedly exceeded state regulatory standards for lead.

Yet for years after the exceedances began, Benton Harbor made little progress toward removing lead service lines. Local officials said they couldn’t move faster because the city lacks funding to do the job.

So far, Mayor Marcus Muhammad told Bridge, dozens of pipes have been replaced out of thousands that likely need to be removed.

Following the first lead exceedance, state officials directed Benton Harbor to begin using corrosion control chemicals in its water system, and began providing household filters to residents that are designed to strip away lead at the tap. The state also worked with Benton Harbor to secure $5.6 Million in EPA funding for lead line replacement.

That money — far too little to accomplish the job — only became available earlier this year. The state freed up an additional $10 million in September, after Benton Harbor residents began publicly pressuring the state to do more. 

State Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel called the state’s new efforts part of an “accelerated and across-the-board effort” to address Benton Harbor’s lead crisis. 

State officials did not elaborate on where funding for the ramped-up efforts would come from. But local officials have told Bridge Michigan they intend to use some of their federal COVID-19 stimulus funds to supplement state and federal dollars for replacing lead pipes.

“We understand the disruption that this brings to your lives, and the anxiety that it brings,” she said in comments Thursday directed at city residents during the press conference in Benton Harbor.

State officials told Bridge Michigan that in general, lead levels in water tests appear to have begun declining since corrosion control began, though some samples have remained dangerously high. 

No amount of lead ingestion is safe, but federal and state regulatory agencies use a 15 parts-per-billion threshold to trigger a regulatory response. If more than 10 percent of samples tested come back higher than that threshold, water suppliers are out of compliance.

Benton Harbor’s samples have failed that test since 2018. 

Gilchrist on Thursday defended the state’s actions since then, noting that the state has been working with local government and community organizations since the first failed test. Thursday’s announcement of additional efforts, he said, is “an appropriate escalation of that response.”

Pinkney, the local water activist, said the new efforts don’t make up for the past three years of contamination. It still remains likely, Pinkney said, that area residents will file a class-action lawsuit against the state for its slow response.

Benton Harbor isn’t the only community in Michigan to experience lead exceedances, though it is the first one since the Flint water crisis with such ongoing, chronic issues.

In the wake of the Flint water crisis, Michigan updated its lead rules, requiring the state’s public water providers to eliminate lead service lines from their systems by 2041. But many water providers have decried that requirement as an “unfunded mandate” from the state that would force them to hike up water rates to cover costs.

In a statement, Whitmer’s office lauded her administration’s effort to invest in water infrastructure, including creating a plan to invest hundreds of millions toward upgrading infrastructure, eliminating lead lines and addressing PFAS and other contaminants. 

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have proposed spending large sums of the federal COVID-19 stimulus money on water infrastructure needs including lead line replacement, though those proposals have yet to gain approval in the Legislature. 

A federal infrastructure package being debated in Congress also includes lead line replacement money.

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