Michigan tells majority-Black city not to drink tap water amid lead crisis

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Residents of a majority-Black city in Michigan have been advised by the state not to use tap water for drinking, bathing, or cooking “out of an abundance of caution” owing to lead contamination.

For at least three years, residents of Benton Harbor, Michigan, have been suffering from lead-contaminated water with what experts describe as insufficient intervention from state and local officials.

Related: A Black town’s water is more poisoned than Flint’s. In a white town nearby, it’s clean

This month, the state promised to expand free water distribution in the city and reaffirmed its commitment to comply with federal lead regulations. Activists, who say Benton Harbor’s poor water quality is a sign of environmental injustice and have been calling on the state to take action for years, say these are steps in the right direction, but more remains to be done.

In 2018, Benton Harbor was found to have lead contamination of 22 parts per billion (ppb) in its tap water – far higher than the federal action level of 15 ppb and higher, even, than nearby Flint at the height of its water crisis. No level of lead exposure is considered safe; the federal action level is a national standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine which water systems must take action to lower its lead levels.

Local activists welcome these steps after three years of questioning whether the city’s water was safe, and organizing bottled water drives for the community themselves.

“I believe the action … shows they’re ready to do something,” said the Rev Edward Pinkney, head of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, a significant step in the right direction. “That’s a good thing.”

But Pinkney said far more was needed to address the crisis in full, and called on Governor Gretchen Whitmer to declare a state of emergency – both as a means to accelerate the timeline to replace the city’s water lines and to make clearer to those residents unaware of the emergency that the water is unsafe to use.

“You need to call for a state of emergency right now,” Pinkney said. “That will get the attention of the people in Benton Harbor.” He also believed the phrasing of the state’s latest measures failed to capture the scale of the crisis. “Tell the people that the water is unsafe,” Pinkney said. “Just tell them.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council, along with Pinkney’s group and several other organizations, filed an emergency appeal to the EPA on 9 September demanding federal action. In a 5 October response, the EPA told the petitioners that it was now working with the state, county, and city to “ensure there is prompt action to address the community’s public health needs”.

The federal involvement has triggered a more assertive response from the state, according to Cyndi Roper, Michigan senior policy advocate for the NRDC.

“It is clear that EPA’s involvement is driving this forward,” Roper said. “The state has not responded to this for three years in a way that protected residents. It wasn’t until EPA headquarters got involved that we have begun to see an urgent response.”

Following the petition in September, the Michigan department of environment, Great Lakes and energy (EGLE) said it would work with other agencies at the state, county and municipal level to bring water filters to every home in Benton Harbor and to provide bottled water to residents – measures that were previously spearheaded by Pinkney’s group and volunteers. Whitmer, meanwhile, signed a budget allotting $10m to replace lead lines in the city.

Last week, EGLE and the Michigan department of health and human services (HHS) announced an expanded water distribution program and a filter effectiveness study, and discouraged residents from using their tap water. “Protecting the health and safety of Benton Harbor residents is a top priority,” Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan HHS, said in a statement. “We’ve listened to the community’s concerns and out of an abundance of caution, we are recommending that residents use bottled water for cooking, drinking and brushing teeth.”

Lynn Sutfin, public relations officer at the state HHS, said in a statement that “many efforts have been taking place since 2018” from the state and Berrien county, and that the recent actions have been “part of an accelerated, across-the-board effort” to reduce the risk to residents while lead service lines are replaced by the city.

Roper, of the NRDC, said that the recent moves were encouraging, but that officials should follow residents’ lead and speed up the timetable for replacing the city’s 6,000 service lines.

“We definitely think it’s a step in the right direction,” Roper told the Guardian. “But we still have a long way to go.”

Replacing the lead lines will be a challenge.

Under a proposal from Whitmer, the pipes would be removed over the course of five years. But it’s unclear how the project will be funded: the Republican-controlled Michigan legislature agreed to only half of the $20m she said it would cost, and Joe Biden’s infrastructure bills that put $45bn in federal dollars toward replacing the nation’s aging lead lines are currently stuck in a legislative impasse on Capitol Hill. Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health at the NRDC, expressed concern in a previous interview with the Guardian that any cuts to pipe removal funding in the final bills could come at the expense of disadvantaged communities like Benton Harbor.

Meanwhile, residents and their advocates say that the five-year timetable proposed by Whitmer is too long, and have been pushing for an accelerated pace, citing the speed with which the far-larger city of Newark, New Jersey, has moved to replace its lead pipes; since early 2019, it has removed more than 20,000 service lines. Pinkney has called for the Benton Harbor lines to be replaced in one to two years. “We can’t wait no longer,” Pinkney said.

But only about 100 are slated to be removed by next spring. That means residents will probably have to rely on stopgap measures for the foreseeable future, unless something changes.

“Just think about if your children were living in Benton Harbor – would you allow this?” Pinkney said. “Look at Benton Harbor, and do the right thing.”

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