Meet the volunteers who have been passing out bottled water in Benton Harbor since 2018

The state started distribution this month 

By: - October 27, 2021 5:05 am

Carolina Gray, a volunteer with the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, directing residents waiting to pick up bottled water at God’s Household of Faith Church Oct. 15.

By the time Carolina Gray began directing traffic at the bottled water distribution in Benton Harbor earlier this month, the line of cars stretched before her was long.

Wearing a blue shirt emblazoned with the words “Clean water is a human right,” Gray ushered those waiting into the parking lot outside God’s Household of Faith Church. Her hands waved them towards their destination: the thousands of cases of water that, in less than four hours, would be entirely gone, the bottles going to Southwest Michigan homes where people can no longer drink the tap water because of elevated levels of lead.

With the car engines humming in unison in front of her, Gray stopped every once in a while to smile and wave at the hundreds of people who passed her by on the afternoon of Oct. 15: the tired mothers with small children in the backseat, the teenagers whose school day just ended, the grandparents getting water for family members unable to take time off from work to pick up the bottles they need for drinking, brushing their teeth and cooking. In other words: the water they need to live.

“This is a sad time, but it makes me happy to help,” Gray said, referring to the distribution of water bottles that state officials are encouraging the approximately 10,000 residents of Benton Harbor to use in the wake of dangerously high levels of lead found in some city homes.

A volunteer with the group that’s leading the water distribution, the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, Gray is one of about 22 people who make up the grassroots organization that, for years, has been spearheading initiatives to get clean water to residents of this predominantly Black city where close to half the population lives in poverty.

We started using our own money to buy the water, and, as we got going, people started donating. For two and a half years, we’ve been giving out about 2,000 cases a month.

– Rev. Edward Pinkney, a longtime pastor and a member of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council

When the state announced on Oct. 6 that it would begin providing free bottled water to Benton Harbor — with cases stamped with the “Pure Michigan” logo on them — the water council quickly partnered with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to distribute the water. Within a matter of weeks, the all-volunteer council gave out about 10,000 cases to residents in an effort to make sure people are not drinking tap water potentially tainted by lead, a toxic chemical that can cause brain and kidney damage, behavioral problems and even death.

It’s an effort that the council is used to; after all, they’ve been doing this since residents formed the group in the summer of 2018, just after the first water samples from Benton Harbor homes tested positive for elevated — what the state and federal governments refer to as “actionable” — levels of lead.

“We started using our own money to buy the water, and, as we got going, people started donating,” said Rev. Edward Pinkney, a Chicago native who arrived in Benton Harbor to be a pastor about 35 years ago. “For two and a half years, we’ve been giving out about 2,000 cases a month.”

It was no easy task handing out that much water, particularly when the council members were the ones buying the bottles, but Pinkney explained they considered there to be no other option. The state began providing free water filters for residents in 2018 but did not begin offering bottled water until the beginning of October. State officials said they began doing so out of concerns that the water filters were not getting the lead out of people’s drinking water.

“We’ve been doing what we need to do to make sure people have clean water,” Pinkney said.

Benton Harbor residents Frances Davis, left, and Carolina Gray distribute water through the Benton Harbor Community Water Council on Friday, Oct. 15. | Anna Gustafson

‘If we hadn’t filed this petition, none of this would be going on’

It’s not solely water distribution that the council is engaged in, and it’s likely that without this group of volunteers, many of whom are lifelong Benton Harbor residents, the city’s water crisis would not have become the internationally known issue it now is. 

For years, the group has been pushing government officials at all levels — city, state and federal — to increase their efforts to address the lead in the water, which state officials said is happening because of the century-old lead pipes that take the drinking water sourced from Lake Michigan to residents’ homes. Members attended countless City Council meetings, helped collect water samples to be tested for lead, and held a round table so residents could air their concerns with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

But by this summer, council members were fed up. Water tests kept showing alarmingly high lead levels in some city homes. In the most recent round of testing from August, 11 out of 78 homes tested at levels above what’s known as the EPA’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 light of feeling as though city, state and federal officials were again ignoring a predominantly Black city experiencing a water crisis — like Flint — the Benton Harbor Water Council led the efforts to file a Sept. 9 petition with the EPA. Alongside the council, the petition was filed by 20 national and regional environmental groups and leaders, including 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.

If we didn’t do the EPA petition, people still wouldn’t know about the lead, and that’s horrifying.

– Nathan Davis, a Benton Harbor Community Water Council member

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

“If we hadn’t filed this petition, none of this would be going on,” Pinkney said. “That petition, I love that petition. When we filed it, I said, ‘This is going to get people moving.’”

“We had 880 parts per billion, 605 parts per billion, 469, 107, and nobody said nothing,” Pinkney continued, referring to the levels of lead in the water tests. “I felt like somebody had to say something. So the Benton Harbor Community Water Council voted to do something … It took us two weeks to get the petition together, and we filed it.”

After the petition was filed, the state announced it would provide bottled water — something the petition called for, Pinkney noted. 

DHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel said the bottled water distribution began because of fears that the state-issued water filters were not working as they should be.

“What prompted the newest sense of urgency was information about the efficacy of the filters,” Hertel said. “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.”

‘We don’t want to die’: Water council members vow continued action

Frances Davis, a Benton Harbor resident and water council member who helped to distribute the bottled water at the Oct. 15 event, said the concerns around the water filters are keeping her up at night. 

“I’ve been brushing my teeth in the filtered water, and now it might not be effective?” Davis asked. “After I went to a meeting with Rev. Pinkney a couple weeks ago and found out they may not be effective, I went home and I couldn’t get to sleep all night because I was worried about this problem.”

Nathan Smith, a lifelong Benton Harbor resident and member of the water council, said it’s because of the council that these fears are finally finding a stage with elected officials and the media. And while he said it’s criminal that it has taken years for that to occur, he’s hoping it will result in what residents have wanted for years: to know their water is not killing them.

“We need 100% safe drinking water,” Smith said. “No lead is what we need. No lead period.”

He paused and looked at the cars that streamed into the Benton Harbor church for the water distribution. Behind him, Benton Harbor’s water tower stood in the distance; painted on it are the words, “Port of Opportunities.”

The Benton Harbor water tower. | Anna Gustafson

“If we didn’t do the EPA petition, people still wouldn’t know about the lead, and that’s horrifying,” he continued. “Lead can kill you. It attacks your mind, your organs and your entire body. It’s a slow kill. We don’t want to die.”

Water council members said they’re relieved to see action around eliminating lead in their water. 

In mid-October, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer 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 they are discussing the possibility of approving another $11.4 million more that Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad told elected officials is needed to entirely replace the pipes.

“There’s movement now, and we’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing: working and working and working for free,” Pinkney said. “We’re going to make sure people have clean water.”


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include 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.