In Benton Harbor’s water crisis, a long history of systemic racism — and a chance for justice

By: - October 26, 2021 3:22 am

Rev. Edward Pinkney at a water distribution in Benton Harbor Oct. 15. | Anna Gustafson

Every day, Elnora Gavin wakes up terrified that her young son will use the tap water in their Benton Harbor home to brush his teeth when she’s not looking. 

She thinks of the horror stories emanating from children drinking lead infused water in Flint — which, like Benton Harbor, is a predominantly Black city that has been poisoned, not just by lead in its water but by long and deeply embedded histories of institutionalized racism, the fallout of industry, and poverty. 

She thinks of the ramifications of people, and especially children, being exposed to lead: the hundreds of thousands of deaths nationwide tied to lead exposure each year; the extensive brain damage lead can cause, particularly for children whose brains are developing; the connection between lead exposure and incarceration.

She thinks of her hometown, Benton Harbor — a place situated within 4 1/2 square miles in Southwest Michigan where approximately 10,000 people, 85% of whom are Black and nearly half of whom are living in poverty, can no longer drink the water for which they are still paying. 

Lead, which was first documented to be in Benton Harbor’s water in 2018, is a toxic chemical that, if exposed to, can cause brain and kidney damage, behavioral problems and even death.

“I can’t tell you how much stress we’re all under,” Gavin said. “I can’t describe how it feels to worry that my son will use the sink to brush his teeth when I’m not there. It’s an outrage that this is happening.”

On Oct. 6, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced it would begin providing free bottled water in Benton Harbor — something local groups have been doing for years — and “encouraged” residents to stay away from tap water for drinking, brushing teeth and cooking because of the elevated lead levels. 

Now, hundreds of residents are heading to distribution sites to wait in long lines for the thousands of free bottled water cases that are being given out by volunteers daily. 

We can’t keep standing in line for water. We have rights. We’re human. Has that been forgotten?

– Carolina Gray, a member of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council

At a water distribution held at God’s Household of Faith Church earlier this month, a stream of residents with small children in the back seats of their cars told the Michigan Advance they had taken time off from work to pick up the water.

“The people here, we all need help,” Carolina Gray, a Benton Harbor resident and a member of the all-volunteer Benton Harbor Community Water Council, said at the God’s Household of Faith Church distribution on Oct. 15. For nearly three years, the water council has been distributing free bottled water to residents.

“We need to get this stuff solved; we can’t keep waiting,” Gray said. “We can’t keep standing in line for water. We have rights. We’re human. Has that been forgotten?”

The lead in the water, city and state officials, said, is a problem emanating from the century-old lead pipes throughout Benton Harbor. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently announced a plan to replace thousands of lead pipes in the city within a year and a half. State lawmakers recently approved $10 million for the city’s lead pipe replacement in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget, and almost exactly one year ago U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced they secured a $5.6 million grant to remove some of Benton Harbor’s lead service lines. 

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad told lawmakers during a state House Oversight Committee hearing on the water crisis Thursday that millions more dollars are needed to entirely replace the aging lead pipes. Muhammad said he expects the project to cost around $30 million.

“If we recognize the urgency, then the response should be in kind,” Muhammad said. “If you know this is an urgent 911, then cut the check. There’s a rapper named DJ Quik who says, ‘If it does not make dollars, then it does not make sense.’ This problem needs to be solved with revenue.”

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad at an Oct. 21 House Oversight Committee hearing. | Anna Gustafson

All of this — the poisoned water, the constant fear over the prospect of lead deteriorating children’s minds, the taking time off to wait in line for bottles needed to do everyday tasks, the need for money in a city that until 2016 was under state emergency management — wasn’t inevitable, Gavin and others interviewed by the Advance said. Instead, it is the outcome of a long history of institutionalized racism and disinvestment that has left residents to feel abandoned by government and business, to feel deeply alone in a world that, for years, seemed apathetic at best about the water being undrinkable.

“Nobody wants to believe someone intentionally has caused harm, but that’s exactly what systemic racism is,” said Gavin, a community activist who has long been involved in racial justice work in Benton Harbor and founded her own organization, Peace for Life, that aims to empower local youth. “There’s so much to say. They’ve known about [the lead in the water] for years. They disinvested in this community. They have not treated us like humans. Why is it taking so long to administer a solution? Gentrification. They want 85% of us to leave. You’re talking about displacing folks and then bringing in people who will benefit from our pain.”

Those behind the “they” in Gavin’s statement vary and align with what almost every Benton Harbor resident interviewed by the Advance over the past couple of weeks has said: This water crisis is rooted in various institutions, including government and business, turning a blind eye to a city struggling against the deathly undertows of poverty, white flight and segregation.

And while Benton Harbor residents have long known struggle — people there are, for example, two to three times less likely to be able to purchase homes with a bank loan than those in the whiter and wealthier community next door, St. Joseph, and they, on average, live 19 fewer years than their white neighbors — it is this years-long plea for clean water that won’t poison their children that has left people there to feel so very isolated, those interviewed by the Advance said.

In many ways, residents said, it feels as though it is Benton Harbor against the world. Or, perhaps more accurately, the world against Benton Harbor.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” said Gwen Swanigan, a community activist, the founder of the S.H.A.R.P. (Society Harmonizing Against Racial Profiling) Foundation, and a member of the Racial Equity Chamber in Benton Harbor. “The residents are outraged, and we very well should be. This could have been prevented years ago. The government knew about this years ago. They turned a deaf ear; they turned a blind eye to residents and didn’t do anything about it.”


A problem left unsolved for years

Swanigan’s statement that the water crisis has not been adequately addressed by any level of government for years was one frequently repeated by almost all of the Benton Harbor residents, save for the mayor, interviewed by the Advance.

While there are varying versions of this story — who knew about the water crisis and when, how it has been handled, if things should have been done differently — there are a number of indisputable facts from documented water tests. 

The first documented test reporting elevated lead levels in some Benton Harbor homes’ tap water was in 2018, when then-Gov. Rick Snyder — a Republican who is facing criminal charges over his alleged role in the lead disaster that devastated the city of Flint — was nearing the end of his tenure as governor. At that time, samples of water from Benton Harbor homes tested positive for elevated — what the state and federal governments refer to as “actionable” — levels of lead. (Medical doctors repeatedly point out that there are no safe levels of lead; exposure to any amount of lead can lead to both immediate and long-term health problems, including brain damage.)

Since 2018, there have been six state tests that reported dangerously high levels of lead in some Benton Harbor homes. In the most recent round of testing from August, 11 out of 78 sampled homes tested at levels above what’s known as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “action threshold,” or 15 parts per billion (ppb), which is how water lead levels are measured. 

Tests of tap water from Benton Harbor homes reported levels of 889, 605, 469, 109, and 107 ppb this year, according to the state. In Flint, the highest lead reading recorded in a water sample was 13,000 parts per billion — more than twice the level considered to be “toxic waste” by the EPA.

The Rev. Edward Pinkney, a longtime pastor in Benton Harbor, said he and other community leaders have felt something akin to desperation when dealing with government officials, from the mayor to the EPA and both the Snyder and Whitmer administrations, all of whom, for years, didn’t announce that the city’s tap water was unsafe to drink after the first test came back with results of elevated lead levels in 2018.

Rev. Edward Pinkney stands in front of the bottled water he and a team of volunteers are distributing to Benton Harbor residents on Friday, Oct. 15. | Anna Gustafson

“In a Black city like Benton Harbor, who really cares? They don’t care about people here having bad water, having contaminated water, having lead-infested water,” Pinkney said.

“If a white woman with a baby was seen saying she didn’t have safe water for her child, you’d have the National Guard down here,” the pastor continued.

Pinkney, along with the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, has spearheaded efforts to distribute free bottled water to residents over the past three years and push for government officials to more fully address the crisis. Pinkney and the water council are also the driving force behind a petition filed with the EPA by 21 national and regional environmental groups and leaders, including the water council, the National Resources Defense Council, the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician largely credited with discovering the lead crisis that began in 2014 in Flint.

The petition asks the EPA to provide increased assistance to city and state officials handling the water crisis; it is, Pinkney said, likely a prelude to a class-action lawsuit against a variety of institutions, including city and state government.

Whitmer says her administration deeply cares about the people of Benton Harbor. In an Oct. 19 statement about meeting with community leaders in the area, the governor said she “called on the legislature to fully fund lead service line replacement with an additional $11.4 million investment” in order to replace 100% of the city’s lead service lines in 18 months.

“I cannot imagine the stress that moms and dads in Benton Harbor are under as they emerge from a pandemic, work hard to put food on the table, pay the bills, and face a threat to the health of their children,” Whitmer said. “That’s why we will not rest until every parent feels confident to give their kid a glass of water knowing that it is safe.”

Muhammad, who is facing a recall petition over his response to the water crisis; DHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel; and Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) Director Liesl Eichler Clark said while city and state officials did not announce that all residents should drink bottled water until Oct. 6 of this year, they provided “educational materials” about the fact that homes tested at elevated lead levels and distributed free water filters to residents following the 2018 test. 

In March 2019, the city of Benton Harbor, at the urging of EGLE, began adding what’s known as “corrosion inhibitor” to the lead pipes in an effort to stop lead from entering the water. That, however, has not worked and homes’ tap water has continued to test positive for elevated lead levels, state officials said.

In a Black city like Benton Harbor, who really cares? They don’t care about people here having bad water, having contaminated water, having lead-infested water.

– Rev. Edward Pinkney, a longtime pastor in Benton Harbor

“Filter distribution began with the first identification of lead in the water,” Hertel said. “There have been thousands of filters that have been distributed in the city for resident use. What prompted the newest sense of urgency [that prompted the announcement that residents should drink bottled water] was information about the efficacy of the filters. There are concerns that the filters may not be filtering the lead out given the composition of the water. For that reason, we decided until we can verify the efficacy of the filters with the water, we recommend using bottled water.”

Clark told the House Oversight Committee on Thursday that the state and the EPA are working together to study how well the filters are working and said she expects to know the results of that within a matter of weeks.

While Pinkney said he appreciates there finally seems to be a sense of urgency among government officials, he said it’s “too little, too late.”

“You still won’t hear the mayor say the water is unsafe,” Pinkney said. “That is the main problem we have facing us today. Just tell the truth.”

“Also, the governor: stop saying ‘out of an abundance of caution,’” Pinkney continued, referring to an Oct. 6 DHHS press release that stated “out of an abundance of caution,” the state would provide bottled water to Benton Harbor residents.

“What kind of language is that, with something as serious as this?” Pinkney continued. “They’re wearing practically the same show, the mayor and the governor. Just tell people the truth: the water is unsafe to drink. What’s so hard about that? This affects life. This affects generations.”

Nicholas Leonard, the executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, which joined Pinkney as one of the petitioners to the EPA, agreed with the pastor and said “we haven’t seen the robust response that we would like to see, both regulatory and public healthwise, in Benton Harbor to address this issue.”

“This problem has been going on for three years, and the unfortunate reality is we’re not any closer to identifying a long-term solution than we were three years ago when this problem first started,” Leonard said. 

And, as all the Benton Harbor leaders and residents noted, the city is a “community that’s overwhelmingly made up of people of color that has suffered from a long history of racial distrimination and public and private disinvestment,” Leonard said. 

“If environmental justice means anything, it has to mean the people in power standing up to stop that legacy of injustice,” he said.

The Benton Harbor water tower. | Anna Gustafson

A shrinking tax base and fewer state funds

For Muhammad, the mayor, much of the problem around addressing the lead pipes has been the city’s ability to pay to replace them when it has been left gasping for breath in the wake of an ever-dissipating tax base.

“This is a $30 million job; where does Benton Harbor get $30 million out of thin air?” Muhammad asked.

Since the 1960s, Benton Harbor’s population has been halved after white people fled when Black individuals moved from the southern United States to the Michigan city during the Great Migration for work in Benton Harbor’s then-prosperous industrial landscape. 

Among a litany of examples, the city has watched its hospital, newspaper, YMCA, and various manufacturing plants left the city for its whiter and wealthier neighbor, St. Joseph. Like Benton Harbor, St. Joseph sits on Lake Michigan but receives far more tourism and touts itself as “the Riviera of the Midwest.” Benton Harbor is 84% Black; St. Joseph is 84% white, and residents there annually earn about three times as much as the people of Benton Harbor.

In addition to a decreasing population, the city also currently isn’t receiving property taxes from the largest employer in the area, Whirlpool, which has its global headquarters in Benton Harbor. The corporation won’t pay property taxes to Benton Harbor until 2024 in exchange for building two new facilities in Benton Harbor between 2010 and 2016 and making a corporate donation of $3.8 million to support city services. A former emergency manager — the city was under state emergency management from 2010 to 2016 — used that donation to fund the city’s police pension plan.

Under the former emergency manager, Muhammad said the city’s water operation took a huge hit that directly contributed to the problems that exist today. The former emergency manager attempted to sell the city’s water plant and then fired more than half the plant’s staff when he wasn’t able to do that, the mayor said.

“At one time, we had 105 employees and now we have 49,” Muhammad said. “The water is suffering, among many other things. That part of the equation cannot be divorced from 2018 (when the first elevated lead level report came in).”

Just tell people the truth: the water is unsafe to drink. What’s so hard about that? This affects life. This affects generations.

– Rev. Edward Pinkney

Muhammad is the first mayor following the state’s emergency management. Once local control was restored, he said there was a mad rush just to get the city government up and running again — which was happening as a water crisis formed.

“We have so many different challenges, like our state revenue shrinking every year,” the mayor said.

The state lawmakers representing Benton Harbor, Sen. Kim LaSata (R-Bainbridge Twp.) and Rep. Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet) did not respond to requests for comment about the decreasing state aid to Benton Harbor. But in a statement on Thursday, LaSata said she supported the $10 million lawmakers included in the FY 2022 budget. 

“In addition to this, I co-sponsored a large-scale reform that would dedicate $2.5 billion to improve and protect Michigan’s water quality, including $600 million to be used toward lead pipe replacement,” LaSata said of Senate Bill 565, which was introduced in June by state Sen. Jon Bumstead (R-Newagyo).

The details for the legislation are “still being negotiated, but I assure everyone in the community that the remaining needs of the Benton Harbor community will be part of the conversation,” LaSata said.

Wendzel also noted in a prepared statement that she supported the $10 million for Benton Harbor in the state budget.

“The $10 million approved by the Legislature in September is a downpayment to jumpstart this effort – I’m confident more resources will be secured soon,” Wendzel said. “Fully replacing the lead service lines is an essential step in restoring confidence in the Benton Harbor water system. We’ve got to finish the job as quickly as possible.”


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is a former assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats included economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.