Michigan city is GRIDLOCKED by residents rushing to get free bottled water as lead contaminates tap


Michigan city has been gridlocked by residents rushing to get free bottled water after they were warned not to cook or brush with their tap water after vast amounts of lead were detected.

Officials in Benton Harbor have sent out notices, distributed fliers and tried to improve the water system since high levels of lead were first detected in 2018, the New York Times reports, but now state officials are telling residents not to use it at all.

Instead, they have been handing out bottled water at sites throughout the community, causing long lines and jamming traffic in the city of 9,100 residents.

The city is also offering free lead blood tests for children and home inspections for anyone who shows signs of lead in their system that has come from corroding pipes used to transport drinking water, according to FOX 17.

And the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has received USDA approval to provide Benton Harbor residents with baby formula that does not require mixing water, ABC News reports.

‘People can bathe in it,’ Elizabeth Hertel, director of the department told Fox. 

‘We advise that they don’t drink it, or cook with it, or use it to brush their teeth. As long as they’re not ingesting it right now, that’s what we’re advising.’ 

Dwayne Yarbrough directed traffic as volunteers distributed cases of bottled water in Benton Harbor on Friday

Dwayne Yarbrough directed traffic as volunteers distributed cases of bottled water in Benton Harbor on Friday

State officials have warned the residents not to use tap water due to the high levels of lead that were found in it

State officials have warned the residents not to use tap water due to the high levels of lead that were found in it

The water distribution events have drawn thousands of residents in the small city

The water distribution events have drawn thousands of residents in the small city

Residents say the water system in the city, 85 per cent of whose residents are black, has been contaminated for years, but nothing has been done until now.

In 2018, they said, tests started to show the lead level in the water well above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion in 10 percent of samples.

The state has since been working with the city to address the water concerns, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II said Thursday, with corrosion controls and lead-removing filters, but, he said, ‘those efforts had not yet fully addressed the challenge.’

And by 2020, ABC News reports, one home tested at 440 parts per billion (ppb) for lead, 11 homes had levels above 15 ppb and one home hit 889 ppb – nearly 60 times the federal standard.

Federal health officials, though, say there is no safe level of lead exposure, which  can harm brain development in children and causes both short and long-term health problems for adults.

Elizabeth Hertel, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said they advise people not to 'drink it, or cook with it, or use it to brush their teeth.' Here, Frank Blue is seen joining volunteers as they carried bottled water to residents

Elizabeth Hertel, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said they advise people not to ‘drink it, or cook with it, or use it to brush their teeth.’ Here, Frank Blue is seen joining volunteers as they carried bottled water to residents

Charles Young was seen helping out with the water distribution

Charles Young was seen helping out with the water distribution

The water distribution events caused traffic to backup in the city of 9,100 residents

The water distribution events caused traffic to backup in the city of 9,100 residents

Last month, a group of 20 local and national environmental groups petitioned the EPA to intervene, citing the ‘imminent and substantial endangerment to health.’

They called for a full removal of nearly 6,000 lead service lines that deliver water to homes, saying Benton Harbor has 5,877 total service lines, 51 percent of which ‘are known to contain lead, are known to be galvanized lines previously connected to lead or are of unknown material but likely to contain lead.’

Just two percent, they said, are not believed to contain any lead.  

‘For at least three years, the people of Benton Harbor have been waiting for safe drinking water uncontaminated by dangerous lead,’ Rev. Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, said in a statement. ‘But we are not willing to wait any longer.’

‘It’s a simple matter of law and justice that the people of Benton Harbor deserve safe water, regardless of their race or income,’ added Nick Leonard, the executive director of Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.

He noted that the EPA issued an emergency administrative order in Clarksburg, West Virginia – a predominantly white community – after water samples at about three sites showed high levels of lead, but have not done so in Benton Harbor –  which is predominantly black, and where 45 percent of residents live in poverty.

‘The situation in Benton Harbor is at least as extreme, and could be more extreme, than the case of Clarksburg, West Virginia.’

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer set an 18 month goal for replacing the lead pipes connecting homes to the water system

Since the petition was filed, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer set an 18 month goal for replacing the lead pipes connecting homes to the water system.

It is expected to cost $30 million, and under Michigan’s 2022 state budget, $10 million is dedicated to replace service lines in Benton Harbor.

‘I cannot imagine the stress that moms and dads in Benton Harbor are under as they emerge from a pandemic, work hard to put food on the table, pay the bills and face a threat tot he health of their children,’ she said in a statement.

‘We will not rest until the job is done and every parent feels confident to give their kid a glass of water knowing that it is safe.’

But high levels of lead have been found throughout the state.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 460,000 lead pipes were still in the ground in Michigan as of July 2021 – the third highest of any state in the nation.  

It also has one of the highest rates of lead drinking water pipes per capita, seven years after the lead-filled water in Flint, Michigan sparked a nationwide conversation about water quality. Flint is also majority black, with the Benton Harbor water crisis sparking fresh conversations about why African-Americans are at greater risk of exposure to lead-contaminated tap water.

The city’s water supply was re-routed from the city of Detroit to the Flint River in April 2014. As a result, corrosive water caused lead to detach from the pipes and enter the water system.

For months, residents had to deal with brown, murky water, and more than a dozen died of Legionnaire’s Disease, with a number of children also experiencing life-altering cognitive issues.

Michigan switched back its water system to come from Detroit in October 2015, but the problem persisted.

After brown water was found in Flint, Michigan, people participated in a national mile-long march to demand clean water

After brown water was found in Flint, Michigan, people participated in a national mile-long march to demand clean water

A number of children experienced life-altering cognitive issues as a result of the lead-filled water in Flint. Here Taylor Matthias Wilson-Williams is pictured outside a water distribution site in the city, after he was born 12 weeks early

A number of children experienced life-altering cognitive issues as a result of the lead-filled water in Flint. Here Taylor Matthias Wilson-Williams is pictured outside a water distribution site in the city, after he was born 12 weeks early

Flint resident Jessica Owens holds a baby bottle full of contaminated water, during a news conference after attending a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Flint, Michigan water crisis. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has now received USDA approval to provide Benton Harbor residents with baby formula that does not require mixing water

Flint resident Jessica Owens holds a baby bottle full of contaminated water, during a news conference after attending a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Flint, Michigan water crisis. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has now received USDA approval to provide Benton Harbor residents with baby formula that does not require mixing water

And the situation isn’t much better throughout the country.

People in cities like Chicago and Pittsburgh are also drinking dangerous amounts of brain-damaging lead as agencies struggle to modernize water treatment plants and replace the lead service lines that connect buildings to the water system.

According to Good Morning America, one in every four of America’s poorest zip codes has at least one district with excessive lead contamination, compared to one in 11 of the wealthiest neighborhoods. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s water infrastructure a C- this year, describing the nation’s system as ‘aging and underfunded’ despite recent efforts to invest in improvements.

President Joe Biden has since made replacing the lead pipes a priority in his Build Back Better infrastructure bill, which would set aside about $55 billion to improve water systems.

Emily Feenstra, the Society of Civil Engineers’ managing director for government relations and infrastructure initiatives said the legislation offers an opportunity to make up for lost time in fixing the infrastructure.

‘It’s an urgent problem: Its something that we have a huge opportunity to address right now with this infrastructure bill,’ she told the Times, noting, ‘As we kick the can down the road by just kind of doing the bare minimum, the costs rise exponentially.’ 

President Joe Biden has made replacing the nation's water structure a priority, with $55 billion set to replace the water system under his Build Back Better bill

President Joe Biden has made replacing the nation’s water structure a priority, with $55 billion set to replace the water system under his Build Back Better bill

But the trillion-dollar plan is currently stalled in Congress, as Republicans voice their opposition to the price. 

Just recently, moderate West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin lashed out at ‘out-of-stater’ Bernie Sanders after the Vermont socialist senator wrote an op-ed in a West Virginia newspaper urging voters to support the infrastructure bill.

Manchin, 74, and fellow Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have refused to rubber-stamp Biden’s $3.5 trillion plan because of its exorbitant price tag.

Sanders, 80, the leader of the progressive wing of the party, made his case to Manchin’s constituents in West Virginia’s largest newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

‘The $3.5 trillion Build Back Better bill, supported by President Biden and almost all Democrats in Congress, is an unprecedented effort to finally address the long-neglected crises facing working families and demand that the wealthiest people and largest corporations in the country start paying their fair share of taxes,’ Sanders wrote. 

Manchin immediately issued a stinging rebuke, taking to social media to condemn Sanders and accuse the twice-failed presidential candidate of having no idea of what was best for West Virginians.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, 74, has stubbornly refused to support the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan and said Sanders could not sway him as he condemned Sanders' 'out of stater' intervention

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, 74, has stubbornly refused to support the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan and said Sanders could not sway him as he condemned Sanders’ ‘out of stater’ intervention

Bernie Sanders, 80, a senator for Vermont, on Friday took the highly unusual step of writing an op ed in another senator's state

Bernie Sanders, 80, a senator for Vermont, on Friday took the highly unusual step of writing an op ed in another senator’s state

‘This isn’t the first time an out-of-stater has tried to tell West Virginians what is best for them despite having no relationship to our state,’ Manchin wrote. 

‘Millions of jobs are open, supply chains are strained and unavoidable inflation taxes are draining workers’ hard-earned wages as the price of gasoline and groceries continues to climb,’ he added. 

He reprimanded Sanders for wanting to ‘throw more money on an already overheated economy while 52 other Senators have grave concerns about this approach.’

‘Congress should proceed with caution on any additional spending and I will not vote for a reckless expansion of government programs. 

‘No op-ed from a self-declared Independent socialist is going to change that.’ 



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