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Michigan environmental leader admits flaws with Benton Harbor lead crisis

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(Bridge photo by Kelly House)

Michigan regulators on Wednesday admitted that poor communications by the state may have kept some Benton Harbor residents from being aware of the scope of the lead problem within the municipal water system.

In a letter to the Senate Oversight Committee, Liesl Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, defended her agency’s response to the Benton Harbor water crisis, noting that regulators went “beyond legal requirements.”

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But Clark acknowledged the need for “potential improvements” to communications from agencies involved in the water crisis response, while noting that the primary responsibility for community outreach lies with the city water provider. 

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Clark’s letter accompanied more than 11,000 documents to the Senate committee amid a legislative probe into the state’s response to the Benton Harbor crisis.

“A range of actions were taken by multiple entities to inform Benton Harbor residents about elevated lead levels in community water samples,” Clark wrote to committee Chair Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, in the Wednesday letter. “But given that many residents were not fully reached and engaged by those efforts, we should consider potential improvements to our whole-of-government approach to communications.”

McBroom told Bridge Michigan on Thursday that he hasn’t yet looked at the documents. In response to Clark’s letter acknowledging communications issues but otherwise defending EGLE’s response, McBroom said “the proof of that analysis will be found by going through the documents.”

 

Within hours of the document release, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer directed state agencies including EGLE and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to begin a “comprehensive review” of the state’s drinking water oversight, including a review of agencies’ communications protocols for when water problems crop up in a community. 

Whitmer outlined six areas for action: Recommending policy reforms, identifying needed funding, boosting communication so communities with water problems are promptly notified, identifying ways to reduce lead in drinking water, and creating a plan to promote “regional planning” of drinking water systems such as consolidating services.

The agencies have until December 2022 to complete the task.

“This review will focus on both prevention and response when water quality issues arise,” Whitmer wrote.

Periodic tests of Benton Harbor’s water first began showing elevated lead levels in some taps starting three years ago. But the yearslong crisis has become a political issue in recent weeks, following complaints from residents and activists that too little was being done to fix the problem.

The lead discovery was the latest in a series of problems that had cropped up in the financially-struggling city’s water plant in recent years. The state’s initial response to those problems — under the previous governor, Rick Snyder, a Republican, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat  — was to direct city officials to raise water rates to pay for fixes.

The lead problems added a new challenge Benton Harbor was not financially equipped to handle. The city lacked money to quickly remove lead service lines, and was also short on cash to install corrosion control to keep lead from leaching from pipes in the meantime.

While state officials worked with Benton Harbor to revise spending plans for existing grant dollars and secure new federal funds to respond to the crisis, they never asked the legislature for money specifically to speed replacement of Benton Harbor’s lead pipes.

Years into the water crisis, multiple groups joined together in September to petition the federal EPA for emergency intervention. In the weeks since, the state has told residents not to drink even filtered water from the tap, begun providing bottled water, ramped up community outreach and made available an additional $10 million for lead line replacement.

It has set a goal to remove all of Benton Harbor’s thousands of lead lines by spring of 2023.

Republican lawmakers in recent weeks have taken up the issue, launching inquiries and issuing statements blaming the Whitmer administration for failing to act more forcefully early in the crisis.

Republican gubernatorial hopeful James Craig, too, has cited Benton Harbor in his campaign communications.

On Thursday McBroom said he’s focused on poring through the documents before assigning blame.

“There's always people who are going to try to leverage a situation like this to their advantage,” he said. “I tried to look at it like I looked at past problems. How do we fix this so the government doesn't make these kinds of mistakes again, regardless of who has that power? And if there is political blame to go around, then that'll come to the surface too.”

The newly released documents provide fresh details about the back-and-forth between state regulators and local officials as they sought to contain the city’s lead problem, starting with feeding corrosion control chemicals into the city’s water supply beginning in March 2019.

A year later, when those chemicals didn’t appear to be working, EGLE ordered Benton Harbor to change the chemical formula to a stronger orthophosphate blend, fed into the water at a higher rate.

Michael O’Malley, the city employee who oversaw Benton Harbor’s water system, was not happy. 

In a February 24, 2020 email, he accused state officials of “jumping to conclusions” and argued the city needed more time to see results from its weaker corrosion control blend.

“If, you had requested, or If you had waited a bit longer with the NOTICE; we may have seen results that indicated that the original corrosion treatment program was working enough to wait out the 18- Month time frame that we were told would be when a relatively full exchange would be evident,” he wrote in an email to EGLE’s Ernest Sarkipato and Brandon Onan. “Instead of jumping to conclusions based upon Lead Action Levels only.”

Meanwhile, EGLE ordered Benton Harbor to study the optimum corrosion control at the plant, resulting in an initial study that the state rejected as insufficient. That sent Benton Harbor back to try again.  

As of this year, after the state granted multiple extensions to an administrative consent order requiring the corrosion control study and multiple other fixes to the water system, the required study still had not been completed.

In the ensuing years, efforts to remove lead from Benton Harbor’s water system plodded along amid a lack of funding. So far, the city has replaced just over 200 of the thousands that need replacement.

In the letter, Clark cast the crisis as part of a systemic problem with aging infrastructure that disproportionately plagues poor and Black communities, and called it “part and parcel of a statewide lead drinking water challenge that Michigan must more fully acknowledge and address.”

Benton Harbor, in southwest Michigan, has a population of 9,100, 83 percent of whom are African-American. Just over 45 percent of the population lives in poverty, more than triple the statewide rate of 13 percent.

The document release comes one day after state and federal regulators ordered Benton Harbor to fix flaws with management of the water system, from failing equipment and missing documents to a failure to follow through on required communications which local water providers must make with residents after detecting elevated lead levels.

Clark said EGLE will continue to turn over more documents in the coming days and weeks.

The primary responsibility for notifying residents lies with the local water supplier — in this case the city of Benton Harbor — not EGLE, Clark said, and the agency went “beyond legal requirements” in its response, including hosting two town halls in Benton Harbor and creating a local water outreach task force. 

But she acknowledged it wasn’t enough to make all Benton Harbor residents aware of the risk. Local activists have said some city residents continued to drink unfiltered tap water for years after the first lead detection.

“Despite this significant communication over the past three years, however, I know firsthand from recent visits with residents at water distribution sites and other venues that the desired information has not fully reached and connected with many Benton Harbor residents,” Clark said. “This gap should serve as an important point of reflection and discussion for officials and stakeholders at all levels of government.”

McBroom said there are no immediate plans to hold Senate oversight hearings on Benton Harbor.

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