The lead water crisis in Benton Harbor persists. This week, the EPA started testing water in homes to measure lead levels and lead pipe replacement is expected to start next week. What’s happening in Benton Harbor underscores the importance of updating aging infrastructure and listening to residents. One Detroit’s Bill Kubota has more with Benton Harbor residents, MLive’s Garret Ellison, PBS NewsHour Communities Correspondent, Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, and Nick Leonard, Executive Director for the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.
- Related: Great Lakes Now | Lead In Your Water
Anthony Bell, Benton Harbor Resident: We were before Flint, we were doing boil acts back then.
Garret Ellison, Reporter, MLive: You’d be on the boil advisories…
Anthony Bell: For a while. For a while. I Could go back till to at least 2012.
Nathan Smith: So why we boiling water, why are we… the water’s undrinkable.
BOILING WATER MIGHT HELP BUT IT WON’T MAKE LEAD GO AWAY. IN BENTON HARBOR IN SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN, NATHAN SMITH SMELLED TROUBLE A DECADE AGO.
Nathan Smith: Never drank the water, never, when I say never started probably 2011 that’s when I stopped drinking the water.
Garret Ellison: Why? What was it about it? Nathan Smith It was the smell, it was the odor, there was something, the dangerous part it was clear. Knew something was wrong with the water.
NOW BOTTLED WATER’S A WAY OF LIFE – HIGH LEAD LEVELS HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT FOR THREE YEARS – BIG HEADLINES THE PAST TWO MONTHS.
Nick Leonard, Executive Director, Great Lakes Environmental Law Center: It’s unimaginable that you could live with not just the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic but the stress of having unsafe drinking water coming in your home on top of that and not knowing when you’re going to get safe drinking water in your home.
WITH THAT IN MIND, IN SEPTEMBER, NICK LEONARD’S GREAT LAKES ENVIRONMENTAL LAW CENTER JOINED OTHER GROUPS TO SUBMIT A PETITION DEMANDING GOVERNMENT ACTION.
Nick Leonard: The severity of it, we were seeing homes as high as nearly 900 parts per billion, which is nearly 60 times the lead action level. We thought that it the residents weren’t getting the response they deserved and many were just completely unaware that there was any issue with their drinking water.
OUR ONE DETROIT PARTNER GREAT LAKES NOW IS WORKING WITH M-LIVE’S GARRET ELLISON.
Garret Ellison: Since October 6th it’s been a pretty high profile response, there’s been a lot of news crews in Benton Harbor, there’s been a lot of questions being asked and you know that’s a status that’s going to probably going to continue quite a while.
GETTING EVERYONE ON THE SAME PAGE HAS BEEN A CHALLENGE.
Fredia Armstrong, Benton Harbor Resident: I heard something about an alert on my phone I never did get it I don’t know why.
Garret Ellison: When did you find out about the lead problem with the water?
Fredia Armstrong: Listening on the TV.
COMMUNICATION ISSUES, THAT DISTRUST OF GOVERNMENT: SHADES OF FLINT HERE IN BENTON HARBOR – ANOTHER MAJORITY BLACK CITY THAT HAD BEEN RULED BY AN EMERGENCY MANAGER. THE WATER PLANT ALREADY HAD ITS TROUBLES – THEN LEAD JOINED THE MIX – NOT A SURPRISE TO HEALTH OFFICIALS.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, Communities Correspondent, PBS NewsHour: There was some water distribution in on the past few years but not at the levels that are happening now. Now the governor has said she’s going to send 20 semi-trucks full of 30-thousand bottles of water every week.
FRANCES KAI HUA WONG’S PART OF THE PBS NEWSHOUR TEAM COVERING THE CRISIS.
Bill Kubota, One Detroit: You see the sign when you drive to Chicago but tell me about Benton Harbor.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang: Yeah so Benton Harbor used to be a booming town with manufacturing and there started to be more and more of a black community that came to work at the factories and work in manufacturing…
WHITE FLIGHT SHRANK THE TAX BASE – THEN A DOWNWARD SPIRAL.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang: The population of the city is half the size of what it was in 1960.
NOW LESS THAN 10-THOUSAND – ONE MORE RUSTBELT TOWN LIKE FLINT – THOUGH MUCH SMALLER.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang: I looked through all the numbers for the water quality, you know their annual water quality reports and you just see a slow rise in the lead levels.
Bill Kubota: How does this compare to Flint, is it a similar situation or facts are different here?
Nick Leonard: I think there are some similarities and there are some differences. There was a specific event that led to high levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water and it was switching the water source without changing the corrosion control treatment to match the change in water chemistry that resulted from that switch. In Benton Harbor we don’t really have that, there was no discreet act that caused the high lead levels in Benton Harbor. It’s a community with a lot of lead service lines and it’s a community that wasn’t using corrosion control treatment which was allowable under our regulations.
BENTON HARBOR WOULD IMPLEMENT CORROSION CONTROL – BUT THAT DIDN’T SOLVE THE PROBLEM.
Nick Leonard: It’s more just a case of infrastructure that was deteriorating from decades of disinvestment and essentially reached a breaking point.
LEAD TESTING SHOWED BENTON HARBOR OVERALL AT 24 PARTS PER BILLION.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang: The thing is, when it hits 15 parts per billion of lead in the water that’s when they’re legally required to do something. Right, before that, they’re not required to do anything by law but as a lot of activists are saying legal does not mean safe because all the doctors, the medical community will say, ‘no amount of lead is safe.’
BENTON HARBOR’S NOT ALONE – ELEVATED LEVELS FOUND IN HAMTRAMCK, SAINT CLAIR SHORES, A LOT OF OTHER PLACES TOO.
Nick Leonard: Decades of disinvestment in our drinking water system and now we’re reaching the point in a lot of our communities where the lead service lines are deteriorating to the point where they continue to present a continuous health risk.
THE FEDS HAVE TOSSED IN ABOUT FIVE MILLION OF THE 30 MILLION DOLLARS NEEDED FOR BENTON HARBOR.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang: At the same time the governor was able to get ten million dollars for Benton Harbor to replace the pipes. She had applied for twenty million dollars but the legislature only approved ten million so now Benton Harbor has 15 million dollars.
THE REST? MAYBE FEDERAL INFRASTRUCTURE MONEY.
Garret Ellison: The state of Michigan is pledging to get all of Benton Harbor’s lead service lines dug up out of the ground and replaced by April 2023, that’s essentially 18 months from now. That’s a tall order and it remains to be seen if that can actually be done.
BACK ON THE WATER LINE, M-LIVE’S GARRET ELLISON CHATS WITH RESIDENT ANTHONY BELL.
Anthony Bell: I don’t think they’re going to fix the water, I’m just being honest, I really don’t I just, only way they’re going to fix the water if they get pressured…
BELL’S THINKING A MASS PROTEST IN LANSING IS IN ORDER.
Nick Leonard: How did this happen in Michigan, the place that we promised, I think everybody promised it’s not going to happen again? This isn’t going to be the last lead crisis that we’ll see. In the future we need to make sure that we’re responding better and making sure that we’re listening to residents and making sure that they have clean drinking water.