Residents of a predominantly Black city in Michigan whose drinking water has contained high levels of lead for at least three years now are demanding a more aggressive state response.
While state officials say they are working to rectify the problem stemming from outdated, corroded service lines, Benton Harbor residents say they’ve been sounding alarms over the contamination since 2018 and the delayed response has not only increased frustration, but has also accumulated more harm.
The city of 10,000 is more than 84 percent Black and nearly half of the residents live in poverty, a characteristic similar to Flint, which faced its own water emergency starting in 2014.
“How do you justify three years of documented contamination and do nothing?” said Edward Pinkney, head of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, a local environmental justice group that started the push for clean water. “We appreciate the bottles of water, but the bottles of water are just a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.”
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services disbursed thousands of cases of bottled water to Benton Harbor, which sits 80 miles south of Grand Rapids, after issuing an advisory last week urging residents not to use tap water for "cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, and mixing powdered infant formula” out of “an “abundance of caution” due to significantly high levels of lead.
The city’s water tested to reveal contamination of 22 parts per billion in 2018 and has consistently had elevated lead levels since. Testing showed 24 ppb between January and June this year. The action level, a measure of corrosion control effectiveness set by the Environmental Protection Agency, is 15 ppb but the agencysays there is no safe level of lead.
After pleas for help fell on what Pinkney called “deaf ears,” his group and 19 other environmental justice organizations, including many who worked on the Flint crisis, filed a petition for emergency action last month asking the EPA for federal intervention. The agency agreed to step in, which finally prompted action from the state, he said. He said a lawsuit against the city and state is still forthcoming.
“It's unfortunate that you look at life so cheap in a community that’s overwhelmingly African American,” he added.
Bobbie Clay, 52, a lifelong Benton Harbor resident who also has children and young grandchildren in the city, said she’s very concerned about long-term health consequences, especially among young people.
“The water is affecting our children,” she said. “There is a noticeable change between how my kids were versus my grandkids. The young ones are extremely hyperactive and large numbers of parents have been going to doctors to figure out what's going on.”
According to the EPA, even low levels of lead in children can result in behavioral and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth and hearing problems. In adults, it can lead to cardiovascular effects, increased blood pressure and incidence of hypertension, decreased kidney function, and reproductive problems in both men and women.
Clay said she’s been using bottled water to drink for the last four years and describes the tap water as having a “white film” and “weird smell” at times.
The state is offering free blood tests for lead levels with additional testing through mobile units coming soon, said Lynn Sutfin, public relations officer with the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Stacey Branscumb, 47, has lived in Benton Harbor since 2009 and believes many of his pets including two tanks of fish and his dog died as a result of lead exposure. He said his tap water tested lead levels at 469 ppb, 31 times more than the EPA action level.
“I don’t believe the state or the city is doing enough to fix this,” he said. “They need to drop everything else and handle this because what’s in the water will do a lot more harm to us than anything else.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state Legislature have cleared $10 million to replace the city’s old and corroding lead water pipes within the next five years.
According to the EPA filing, “Benton Harbor has stated that it has 5,877 total service lines; 51 percent of its service lines either are known to contain lead, are known to be galvanized lines previously connected to lead, or are of unknown material but likely to contain lead.”
“Protecting the health and safety of Benton Harbor residents is a top priority,” Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement last week.
But Pinkney said five years is too long to address a pressing health crisis, and says that the state needs to better stress the urgency of the situation to the residents.
“Just tell the people that the water is unsafe to drink,” he said.
“Stop sending out mixed messages about an ‘abundance of caution,’ and tell people the truth that it's just not safe," he said.