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Majority-Black Michigan City Benton Harbor Has a Water Problem That Rivals Flint Water Crisis

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The state of Michigan has told a majority-Black city not to use tap water for drinking, bathing, or cooking “out of an abundance of caution” because of lead contamination. Residents of Benton Harbor, three hours west of Detroit, have been dealing with poisoned water for at least three years, and experts say that state and local officials have not done enough to help, according to the Guardian.

Back in 2018, it was discovered that Benton Harbor had lead contamination of 22 parts per billion (ppb) in its water. That is a figure much higher than the federal action level of 15 ppb and higher; that number is also higher than that of Flint during the peak of its water crisis. To be clear, no level of lead contamination is safe. The reason why there is a federal action level is because the Environmental Protection Agency uses it as a national standard to determine which water systems to focus on.

For its part, the state has committed to expanding free water distribution in Benton Harbor and promised to comply with the federal water regulations. Local activists say their situation is that of environmental injustice and have warned the state about the water crisis for years.

One local activist, Rev. Edward Pinkney, head of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, said Michigan is moving in the right direction on the issue, but more must be done.

Here is more from the Guardian:

“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.

The biggest challenge will come in replacing the lead lines.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has proposed that the pipes be removed over five years, but no one knows how the project will be financed. The GOP-controlled legislature only agreed to pay for half of the $20 million she said it would cost. Then you have Washington, where Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, which would support Michigan’s efforts, has stalled on Capitol Hill.

Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health at the NRDC, said that any cuts to money that would remove lead pipes would hurt disadvantaged residents like those in Benton Harbor. Activists want the timeline for pipe removal to be reduced to one or two years. They cited how Newark, N.J., a much larger city, replaced its lead pipes at a fast pace. More than 20,000 service lines have been removed since early 2019.

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