EPA finds ‘violations and deficiencies’ at Benton Harbor water treatment plant

By: - November 2, 2021 4:20 pm

Benton Harbor City Hall. | Anna Gustafson

After finding a series of “violations and deficiencies” at the Benton Harbor water treatment plant, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday said the city needs to take immediate action to protect residents from the lead-contaminated water that has left thousands of people unable to drink from their taps.

In light of elevated lead levels found in Benton Harbor homes’ tap water, the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) conducted a joint investigation of the city’s water treatment plant from Sept. 21 through Sept. 27. In its 43-page investigation report, the EPA cited a long list of issues at the plant that treats the water from Lake Michigan before it enters the homes of close to 10,000 residents. 

“The people of Benton Harbor have suffered for too long,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a press release issued Tuesday.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan. | Lisa Sorg/NC Policywatch

“Exposure to lead in children can cause irreversible and life-long health effects, including decreasing IQ, focus and academic achievement,” Regan said. “The water infrastructure in Benton Harbor, like many cities across the country, needs upgrades and investments to build resiliency and protect people from lead.”

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 EPA’s “action threshold,” or 15 parts per billion (ppb), which is how water lead levels are measured. On Oct. 6, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced it would begin providing free bottled water in Benton Harbor and “encouraged” residents to stay away from tap water for drinking, brushing teeth and cooking because of the elevated lead levels.

To address Benton Harbor’s water crisis, the EPA said the city must: 

  • Inform consumers when lead action level exceedances are detected in drinking water.
  • Improve the applications of chlorine for disinfection and orthophosphate for corrosion control.
  • Implement stricter requirements for better monitoring of residual disinfectants and its byproducts.
  • Make filter repairs at the treatment plant.
  • Use an independent third-party to conduct an analysis of alternatives for the long-term operation and maintenance of the system.

EGLE said in a statement that “the deficiencies are part of a legacy of decades of disinvestment in the city’s century-old water system, amplified by the myriad challenges of an environmental justice community with shrinking population served by a water system designed for twice the customers and twice the rate base.”

“This is not intended as a punitive exercise, but rather a transparent way of identifying the pressing needs of the Benton Harbor community so that federal, state, local and community partners can work together to prioritize them as we continue our work to ensure all Benton Harbor residents have access to safe drinking water,” EGLE Director Liesl Clark said in a prepared statement. “EGLE will continue to work to assist residents with both the system problems evident at the facility, and, more pressingly, the current lead issue that is, appropriately, the immediate focus of our resources.”

Bottled water at God’s Household of Faith Church in Benton Harbor. | Anna Gustafson

Community leaders in the city that is 85% Black and where about half the population lives in poverty said they have long tried to sound the alarms about ongoing issues at the water treatment plant. Mayor Marcus Muhammad said in a previous interview with the Advance that a former city emergency manager appointed by former Gov. Rick Snyder laid off the water treatment plant’s director and about half of its staff when the city was under state emergency management from 2010 to 2016. Had that not occurred, Muhammad said the city would likely not be dealing with the level of crisis it faces today.

“At one time, we had 105 employees and now we have 49,” Muhammad said in a previous interview. “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].”

Rev. Edward Pinkney, a longtime pastor in Benton Harbor who recently led the Sept. 9 filing of a petition with the EPA urging the federal agency to increase its involvement in the water crisis, said the report of violations at the water plant is emblematic of a history of public and private disinvestment in his community.

“It highlights that the serious ongoing water crisis in Benton Harbor goes well beyond the city’s major lead contamination problems,” Pinkney said. “The years of disinvestment in our water supply are coming back to haunt us. We need to fix these problems as soon as possible …”

Pinkney urged state lawmakers and the federal government to allocate resources to help Benton Harbor address its lead problem.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently announced a plan to replace thousands of lead pipes in the city within a year and a half. After Whitmer proposed $20 million for Benton Harbor, state lawmakers approved $10 million for the city’s lead pipe replacement in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget. Almost exactly one year ago U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and the EPA announced they secured a $5.6 million grant to remove some of Benton Harbor’s lead service lines.


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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.