It’s been just over one year since the Benton Harbor Community Water Council and a group of community and environmental organizations filed a petition for the USEPA to intervene in Benton Harbor after at least three years of high lead in drinking water contamination. The approximately 9,700 residents of this 85% Black, low-income community, where the majority of residents got their water through a lead service line, had 90th percentile lead levels ranging from 22 to 32 ppb, with some individual lead results at nearly 900 ppb. From 2018 through 2021, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) failed to require Benton Harbor to inform the community about the ongoing water crisis.
Thanks to the hard work of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council and its allies, Governor Whitmer announced an all of government response to the crisis in Benton Harbor including a commitment to removing all the lead service lines in the community within 18 months. At just over one year since the petition was filed, we anticipate the announcement that all lead service lines have been replaced at any minute.
This is the fastest response to a lead crisis we have seen across the entire country. Even in a smaller community of Benton Harbor’s size, it is unheard of to confirm and replace all lead service lines in barely over one year’s time. And it didn’t even require settlement of a lawsuit to get it done. Benton Harbor residents are the clear beneficiaries of this response. Governor Whitmer is to be commended for her swift action as soon as she learned of the ongoing harm in the community.
In the midst of this huge success, the Benton Harbor water crisis also revealed alarming information over the past year. We learned that despite their name change, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has hardly learned any lessons from the Flint Water Crisis. They failed to take a swift and comprehensive public health focused response to educate this environmental justice community on the risk and prevalence of lead. In addition, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services did not play a meaningful role in addressing the public health impacts associated with high levels of lead in drinking water or ensuring residents had an alternative source of safe water until after the Benton Harbor Community Water Council asked the EPA to intervene. We learned that regular mandatory water plant inspections have been turning up significant treatment deficiencies for years that prevented the water utility, EGLE, and EPA from being able to confirm whether treatment requirements were being met at the treatment plant. It took EGLE over 6 months to produce data to confirm that treatment processes were meeting all requirements under the Safe Drinking Water Act Surface Water Treatment Rules despite them assuring that the water was safe to drink back in November of 2021.
Because their meetings are by invitation only, EGLE and MDHHS continue to avoid having public, transparent community meetings to explain the origins, progress, and risks of the water crisis to residents.
Although filter use was not advisable when EGLE could not confirm Benton Harbor was meeting requirements at the water treatment plant, EGLE and MDHHS still have not made it unequivocally clear that residents need to continue to drink bottled water or use a filter in their home for at least 6 months after lead service line replacement as recommended by the USEPA and required in the Lead and Copper Rule Revisions in all communities.
Corrosion control treatment and a corrosion control study, which were EGLE’s sole focus back in 2018 when the lead action level exceedances started, have all but disappeared from consciousness despite the fact that lead in household plumbing remains even after lead service lines are replaced. This remaining lead can be an ongoing source of lead exposure, especially when appropriate corrosion control treatment is not used. But there is no public record of EGLE ensuring the study plan was revised to address household sources of lead. The only study publicly available focused on lead solubility of brand new pieces of lead pipe, the last one of which is expected to be removed in the next few weeks.
EGLE never required Benton Harbor to send public notice to the community about the variety of violations that had been identified in those inspections, some of which may go back as far as 2010 when the community should have first been notified. When they finally issued some of the mandatory information in June 2022, hidden in the back of the annual water quality report, the information raised many more questions than it answered. EGLE still hasn’t responded to a list of questions and concerns raised about the poor public notice for these violations that never received the same attention as the initial lead crisis. We are grateful that Benton Harbor is finally getting the attention it deserves. We hope we can ride the momentum of Whitmer’s success in getting the lead service lines out to making the additional changes needed so EGLE can do right by this community:
We had hoped these changes would have been implemented to prevent the next Flint Water Crisis, but now find ourselves asking for changes to prevent the next Benton Harbor Water Crisis. We hope the persistence of Benton Harbor residents will inspire other communities fighting to make their tap water safe. We anticipate that residents throughout Michigan and the United States will benefit from the progress we have achieved through our work over the past year.