Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive directive Thursday designed to help residents of Benton Harbor get access to safe drinking water amid concerns about unsafe levels of lead in its water system.
“Every Michigander deserves access to safe drinking water and every community deserves lead-free pipes,” Whitmer, a Democrat, said in the directive. She said the city’s water system “has failed to meet the regulatory standard for lead” for six consecutive sampling periods over the last three years.
The directive comes amid increased attention on the lead levels in Benton Harbor’s water supply after a coalition of groups filed an emergency petition to the Enivornmental Protection Agency (EPA) on September 9 asking for federal intervention in mandating assistance in the community.
The governor directed state departments and agencies to work in coordination with local and federal partners, community organizations and the private sector to “expeditiously” take action to ensure access to safe drinking water and free bottled water, as well as free or low-cost lead-related health care services.
Whitmer also directed available state resources to support Benton Harbor in replacing lead service lines, and directed state agencies and departments to “encourage and assist” homeowners to replace lead pipes in their homes.
“Departments and agencies must expeditiously take all appropriate action to ensure that information about their work is communicated to residents of Benton Harbor and that residents have access to clear and up-to-date information about the harmful effects of lead exposure, including the effects of lead in drinking water on vulnerable populations, the replacement of lead service lines, and lead data results for their community,” the directive says.
Benton Harbor, a city bordering Lake Michigan on the western edge of the state, is mostly made up of people of color and low-income homes. Of the city’s 9,700 residents, about 85% are Black and 5% are Hispanic, and about 45% of the population have an income below the federal poverty line, according to the US Census.
In June of this year, EPA officials held a roundtable with local officials to discuss the lead issues in Benton Harbor and other areas of Michigan, but these issues have been a national discussion for many years.
One of the most prominent examples is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which had dangerous levels of lead starting in 2014 after the city started using the Flint River as a water source.
The state is attempting to address the inequities of water equality through the Michigan Clean Water Plan announced last year, which dedicates a total of $500 million toward a “comprehensive water infrastructure package,” with $207 million in investments made directly related to clean, safe drinking water.
What the emergency petition says
According to the emergency petition, lead issues were first found during the summer of 2018 when a sampling period conducted every three years detected lead that was 22 parts per billion, which is above the federal guidelines requiring less than 15 parts per billion. Over the next several years, continued testing found a variety of elevated lead levels that were above 22 parts per billion, the petition states.
Lead can affect almost every organ in all people, according to the EPA, but children and pregnant women are the most susceptible to its effects. In children, it can impact behavior and learning problems, cause lower IQ and hyperactivity, and potentially slow growth. Lead can also impact pregnant women, potentially causing developmental issues in fetuses, or may even cause a miscarriage.
“The persistently high levels of lead in Benton Harbor’s public water system, the City’s status as an environmental justice community, the City of Benton Harbor and (the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy’s) failure to address these issues in a timely manner, and the failure of authorities to adopt any immediate solution to reduce levels of lead contamination in the water system have created an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health that warrants emergency EPA action under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” the petition to the EPA reads.
In a statement to CNN, the EPA said that they are “committed to following the best science to address lead in drinking water.”
“EPA is providing support and oversight of Michigan’s actions, including the delivery of bottled water to ensure an expeditious and effective response to the immediate and pressing water issues in Benton Harbor,” said EPA spokeswoman Taylor Gillespie. “We also are working with Michigan’s state agencies, the City of Benton Harbor and the drinking water system on long-term solutions, which are essential to ensuring the community’s health and well-being.”
Advocates and community leaders say priority is to get lead pipes out
While the state is taking some action to help Benton Harbor, those advocating for the community say that what is being offered is just one small step in the right direction.
“Well now there is a response,” said Cyndi Roper, senior policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who was one of the filers of the petition. “Prior to the petition, people continued to consume high level of leads and the state would just accept that. The state agency would just adjust chemicals at the treatment plant to try and prevent the lead from the pipes leaking out. Nothing was happening before September 9.”
She said that while the state is heading in the right direction, there is still a lot of work to do. One of the biggest issues that need to be addressed immediately is getting the city’s 6,000 lead pipes replaced as quickly as possible, she continued.
“Just last week the city said it plans to remove 100 pipes by next May,” Roper told CNN, and said that the state plans invest $20 million to replace all the pipes in the city within five years. “We know that they can get them all out in one year.”
The Rev. Edward Pinkney, who is the president and chairman of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, said the state is only doing the bare minimum. He agreed that the lead pipes need to be replaced within a year, but also emphasized that the language being used by Whitmer’s office is harmful.
He said that instead of the state saying that bottled water should be used “out of an abundance of caution,” they should just call the drinking water “unsafe.”
Pinkney said the lack of clarity causes confusion among the residents, and that many don’t fully understand the dangers of consuming the water.
“Her language affects the health of my community,” he said.