‘This is ridiculous.’ Frustrations mount at Benton Harbor lead crisis


BENTON HARBOR, MI — Two by two, the cars and trucks rolled through God’s Household of Faith church on Pipestone Street. Volunteers in blue shirts that read “clean water is a human right” heaved cases of 20-ounce water bottles into hatches, trunks, backseats and pushcarts.

By 2:30 pm, the water was gone; all 2,000 cases.

“Come back tomorrow!” volunteers with the Benton Harbor Community Water Council yelled, dodging a sudden rain squall as more cars kept pulling up.

The water handout on Friday, Oct. 8 was supposed to start between 2 and 3 p.m., but residents — urged by state officials this week to switch to bottled water for drinking and cooking due to elevated levels of toxic lead in the city supply — began flooding the distribution point before noon, organizers said.

The 24-packs of Absopure came from the state this week, but community water council leaders say they’ve been passing out 2,000 cases per month since 2019 on their own dime.

“This could have been prevented — all of this,” said Rev. Edward Pinkney, a local faith leader and president of the grassroots council. “Three years of this is ridiculous.”

Water worries escalated this week in Benton Harbor, a majority Black city of 9,800 people on Lake Michigan where a now-familiar aging infrastructure hazard, buried lead service connections between homes and city water mains, is leaching the toxic heavy metal into another Michigan city’s tap water.

On Wednesday, after an iterative but escalating public health response over the past month, the state began sending thousands of cases of bottled water to Benton Harbor. State health and environmental officials formally advised residents to use bottled water “out of an abundance of caution” for uses such as drinking, cooking and teeth brushing.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) on Friday announced that another 37,800 cases of water are headed to Benton Harbor in the coming days.

The response actions follow mounting pressure on the state from local advocates, the Natural Resources Defense Council and 18 other groups that filed a Sept. 20 petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeking a federal intervention.

Since 2018, lead has been found at increasingly high levels coming from Benton Harbor faucets. This year, 11 homes tested above the federal action level of 15 parts-per-billion (ppb). One with lead plumbing tested at 889-ppb, nearly 60 times the action level. Other homes tested at 605, 469, 109 and 107-ppb, according to state data.

Benton Harbor’s “90th percentile” testing hit 24-ppb between January and June this year, the sixth consecutive round of testing in which the level has been elevated. The convoluted regulatory criteria is a representative sample measurement meant to ensure no more than 10 percent of the population is drinking water with lead above 15 ppb.

Advocates like Pinkney are frustrated with the city leadership and state agencies, which began providing bottled water and going door-to-door to help install faucet filters and test the blood levels of children a couple weeks after the petition.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level of lead exposure for children. Exposure to high amounts of lead can cause brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems and hearing and speech problems. Exposure has also been tied to lower IQ and decreased attention span and performance among schoolchildren.

Pinkney said the community appreciates the water deliveries but it’s not enough. Advocates want a local emergency declared to provide a relief mechanism for city utility customers paying for water they can’t use.

Pinkney also wants Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to come out and make it unambiguously clear that the water is unsafe to drink.

“I want her to say it,” said Pinkney. “That way the people will listen.”

At the water handout Friday, some people in line said they’ve been buying bottled water in addition to having a city water bill for a while. Others found out about the lead problem and began using bottled more recently.

“We didn’t know we had lead in our water until probably a month ago,” said Willie Mae Jones, who said she’s been drinking city water her whole life. Her four kids have been, too.

“We still have to pay for that water, and we can’t even use it. Now that’s ridiculous.”

Lisel Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), the state agency which regulates water utilities, helped the water council volunteers distribute bottles Friday.

Clark said the situation is “high level urgent” for Gov. Whitmer. “There are multiple meetings a week on ‘what’s the status.’”

Clark called it “critical” to remove the city’s lead service lines as fast as possible. Benton Harbor signed a contract a couple weeks ago to use EPA grant funding on a first round of 100 lines. More are going to come out thanks to $10 million in the state’s fiscal 2022 budget specifically intended for lead line replacements in Benton Harbor, she said.

The $10 million won’t cover all the lead lines, “but I think it’ll get us a really long way.”

The goal is to have the work completed in less than five years, Clark said, but city finances are making that difficult.

“This is a community where the city doesn’t necessarily have all the pieces that they need,” Clark said. “It can be tough if you don’t have enough money to have enough people to have enough technical background — you need those pieces. The state’s trying to support where we can.”

Benton Harbor’s problem is compounded by the fact that nobody is really sure how many lead lines there are, or where they are. There’s are conflicting accounts of the total and their location is being sussed out with predictive modeling. EGLE says there’s about 6,000. The EPA petitioners say about half that number are problematic and need to go. According to the city’s 2021 drinking water revolving fund plan, 2,390 of the city’s 2,800 service lines are made from an “unknown material and likely contain a portion of lead or galvanized piping requiring replacement.”

On the treatment side, Benton Harbor only started using corrosion control in March 2019 under state pressure and study. Corrosion inhibitors like polyphosphate are used to coat pipes and prevent lead from leaching into tap water.

Elin Betanzo, a former EPA drinking water engineer and consultant who played a critical role in helping expose the Flint water crisis, said it’s possible that Benton Harbor residents have unknowingly been drinking high lead levels for years while the matter went undetected.

Management of the Benton Harbor’s drinking water plant has been spotty. Today, the operation is run by an outside firm, F&V Operations and Resource Management, after EGLE revoked the former plant operator’s certification. The state says the city lacks the technical and managerial know-how to operate the system.

Betanzo speculated that tests began showing lead in 2018 in part because the city was forced to revise its sampling procedure after the Flint crisis, when Michigan disallowed pre-stagnation flushes before testing and began to require wide-mouth bottles and samples from the first and fifth bottle.

Additionally, Benton Harbor is sampling twice as many homes as it did previously and has increased its testing frequency to every six months rather than every three years.

Betanzo said Benton Harbor also lost about a third of its customer base in the decade prior after Benton Charter Township built its own system and and St. Joseph Township connected to the city of St. Joseph supply. The city population has also declined by about 900 people in the past decade. Such losses sap utility revenues and can result in a system delivering water to a smaller area than it was designed to, which can allow water to stagnate in pipes for longer periods where it’s more likely to absorb lead.

Unlike the Flint crisis, there was no source water change in Benton Harbor. The city continues to draw from Lake Michigan.

“It is possible they just hadn’t been doing a good job of capturing the lead risk in the past,” Betanzo said.

Like Pinkney, Betanzo is frustrated with the state’s approach. She’s noted a palpable lack of urgency of late and criticized EGLE’s focus on treatment adjustments rather than removing lead lines. She called it “absolutely possible” to get Benton Harbor’s lead pipes out within a year, noting that Newark, N.J. did 20,000 removals in two years after being sued.

“We’d be having a very different conversation if the focus from the get-go was getting the lead service lines out instead of putzing around with corrosion treatment,” Betanzo said.

ACTIONS THAT CAN REDUCE RISK

According to Michigan EGLE, Benton Harbor residents should consider the following actions to reduce their risk.

• Contact the Berrien County Health Department for a free point-of-use filter (800-815-5485).

• Flush the water in their pipes each morning by using the bath/shower, laundry, toilet, or other plumbing fixtures to bring in fresh water into the home before drinking or cooking with it.

• Clean faucet aerators.

• Cook with and drink only water from the cold tap – not the hot water tap.

• Replace older lead-containing fixtures.

UPCOMING BOTTLED WATER DISTRIBUTION

Saturday, Oct. 9

– Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency, 331 Miller Street, 10 a.m. – Noon

– God’s Household of Faith, 275 Pipestone, 1 – 4 p.m.

– MDHHS Berrien County Office, 401 8th Street, 4 – 6 p.m.

Sunday, Oct. 10

– Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency, 331 Miller Street, 10 a.m. – Noon

– MDHHS Berrien County Office, 401 8th Street, 4 – 6 p.m.

Monday, Oct. 11

– MDHHS Berrien County Office, 401 8th Street, 4 – 6 p.m.

Related stories:

Benton Harbor urged to use bottled water amid lead crisis

2022 budget deal includes millions for water infrastructure

EMs helped cause Flint crisis and changed other water systems

Lawsuits say federal rule allows too long for lead pipe removals

Court upholds Flint-inspired lead water rule

Grand jury helped beat legal deadline in Flint water case

Ann Arbor may spend $14M replacing home water lines

Grand Rapids has 24K lead water service lines to replace

13 Michigan water systems flunk test for excessive lead



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