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Whitmer orders "all-hands-on-deck" response to Michigan city's water crisis

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Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said Thursday that the state will tackle Benton Harbor's ongoing water crisis with an "all-hands-on-deck, whole-of-government approach" in an executive directive aimed at providing joint resources from the state. She vowed to "move forward with urgency" for the city that has experienced elevated levels of lead in its drinking water since 2018.

"Every Michigander deserves safe drinking water, and every community deserves lead-free pipes," Whitmer said in a statement Thursday. "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."

Under the directive, bottled water must be provided until further notice, and residents are required to have access to free or low-cost services like drinking water tests and water filters. The state has also set a goal to replace all of Benton Harbor's lead service lines within 18 months. 

Benton Harbor households with children under the age of 19 or pregnant people enrolled in Medicaid Health plans will also soon be eligible for free environmental investigations into lead risks within their home. The state will also provide residents with services to reduce lead in drinking water should it be found in their homes during the investigation. 

"This is what we've been waiting for — an 'all-hands-on-deck' approach to fix the lead contamination crisis in Benton Harbor," Reverend Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, said Thursday in response to the directive. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there is no known safe level of lead in a child's blood. Negative health effects of drinking water with a lead presence include behavioral issues, a lower IQ, hyperactivity, slowed growth, anemia, cardiovascular effects, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems. 

A petition filed last month by various environmental and public advocacy organizations said the lead in Benton Harbor's drinking water has been a "persistent, widespread, and severe public health crisis." The city has the only water system in Michigan to exceed the EPA's lead action level threshold six consecutive times, and it has not had its lead service lines replaced in years, violating federal and state requirements, according to the petition. 

On October 6, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services told Benton Harbor residents to rely on bottled water instead of tap water while various agencies work on reducing lead levels in water. The department said bottled water has consistently been made available at various distribution sites throughout the city while the EPA conducts a study on water filter effectiveness. 

"Standing with the families of Benton Harbor is an environmental justice priority that we must address with urgency," Michigan's environmental justice public advocate Regina Strong said Thursday. 

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