‘Where is the justice for Benton Harbor?’

In wake of lead crisis, residents speak of anger — and vow to fight for a disenfranchised city

By: - November 9, 2021 1:06 pm

Benton Harbor residents gather inside God’s Household of Faith church Saturday. | Anna Gustafson photo

Softened by the floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows in God’s Household of Faith church in Benton Harbor, Saturday’s afternoon light spread across a sanctuary filled with people wearing “Black Voters Matter” face masks and shirts emblazoned with the words, “clean water is a right.” 

In the cavernous space, many spoke of poisoned water and political disenfranchisement and systemic racism — and, in the face of all that, the power of Black churches and the resilience of people in a city that has been fractured, but not broken, by the lead that has infiltrated its water.

There, in a sea of metal folding chairs, they spoke of the need to heal, not just from the lead that has been found in Benton Harbor homes’ water for the past three years, but from a history of disinvestment, from feeling abandoned, time and again, by political leaders who promise the change residents have yet to see, and from the fear that, as they are fighting for their lives, gentrification will swallow their city.

“This is my message to the mayor and the governor: They have us pledge allegiance to the flag, and they say, ‘Justice for all,’ but where is the justice for Benton Harbor?” Emma Kinnard, a community activist who raised concerns about the city’s water after finding her tap water discolored in 2018, said Saturday, when the Detroit-based “Redline” radio program broadcasted a live show from God’s Household of Faith.

Benton Harbor resident Emma Kinnard speaks about the lead crisis Saturday. Benton Harbor residents gather inside God’s Household of Faith church Saturday. | Anna Gustafson photo

“We are disrespected and disregarded; we need clean water,” Kinnard continued.

Saturday’s event served as something of a town hall on the current crisis in Benton Harbor, 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 because of elevated levels of lead found in some homes. City and state officials said the lead is seeping into the water from the city’s lead pipes that are taking the water sourced from Lake Michigan and treated at a problem-riddled plant to residents’ homes. Exposure to lead can cause brain and kidney damage, behavioral problems and even death, among a litany of other health problems.

While it has been decades that lead has been banned in paint and water pipes in the United States, the toxic chemical’s legacy lives on — particularly in communities of color like Benton Harbor, which are more likely to have lead pipes than white areas, according to a 2020 report from the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund of New York. But it’s not simply that Benton Harbor has lead pipes that paved the way for this water crisis, community leaders told the Advance. The lead that has contaminated residents’ water is the outcome of a long history of institutionalized racism and disinvestment in the city. For example, former Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager — the city was under state emergency management from 2010 to 2016 — who laid off about half the city water treatment plant’s staff, including its director, according to Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad. 

The words “bridge the gap” have faded on a painting by the bridge that connects Benton Harbor with St. Joseph. | Anna Gustafson photo

And, residents repeatedly said Saturday, they have witnessed their whiter and wealthier neighbor, St. Joseph, flourish as businesses and nonprofits fled Benton Harbor for St. Joseph, leaving their city with a dwindling tax base that has struggled to pay for a water infrastructure meant for twice the population it now serves. Residents said they’ve watched as tourists flocked to St. Joseph’s shoreline community while their own city — also situated along the world’s fourth largest lake, Lake Michigan — did not provide one of the most basic rights to its citizens: clean water.

Since 2018, there have been six state tests that reported dangerously high levels of lead in some city homes, prompting residents to repeatedly ask some version of Kinnard’s question Saturday: Where is the justice for Benton Harbor?

“This is a Black community; who really cares about us?” asked Rev. Edward Pinkney, the senior pastor at God’s Household of Faith and a longtime civil rights activist who for years has pushed political leaders to more fully address the water crisis in Benton Harbor.

Benton Harbor residents gather inside God’s Household of Faith church Saturday. | Anna Gustafson photo

Pinkney served as a panelist during Saturday’s discussion, which was led by Bankole Thompson, the host of the “Redline” radio show, a Detroit News columnist, and the editor-in-chief at The PuLSE Institute, an anti-poverty think tank based in Detroit. Tina Patterson, the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, was also a panelist.

The justice cited time and again by residents at Saturday’s event could, and should, take many forms, residents said, including clean water, the lead pipes being replaced faster than the 18 months called for by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and a moratorium on water bills while residents are unable to drink from their taps.

“The lead water’s killing us,” said Carolina Gray, a member of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council — an all-volunteer group led by Pinkney that for nearly three years has distributed free bottled water to city residents. 

“We have a high water bill for water we can’t even use,” Gray continued. “It’s not right for us humans to be drinking water like that. We all are human, and we all have rights.”

Rev. Edward Pinkney serves as a panelist during a program on the lead crisis in Benton Harbor on Saturday. | Anna Gustafson photo

The Whitmer administration announced Oct. 6 that Benton Harbor residents are advised to drink bottled water while government officials study the efficacy of water filters against the elevated levels of lead. Since then, the state has been providing free bottled water to residents. To address the lead, Whitmer recently proposed allocating $20 million to replace the service lines; the Republican-led state legislature approved $10 million in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget. U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) also helped to secure funding — a $5.6 million grant from the EPA in 2020 — to replace the lead lines. Replacing all of the city’s lead lines is expected to cost around $30 million, and the city’s mayor, Whitmer and Democratic lawmakers are pushing state Republican legislators to allocate millions more in funding for the project.

Excavation work on 100 lead lines began this week as part of an 18-month project to replace all of the city’s lead pipes, the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) said Friday.

On Tuesday, Whitmer spent time in Benton Harbor to see the excavation work on the lead service lines.

“Today, I visited a construction site in Benton Harbor where we are moving dirt to replace 100% of lead service lines in the city,” Whitmer said in a press release. “I am proud of the progress we are making, and I look forward to much more. I am confident that we can meet our goal to replace 100% of lead service lines in Benton Harbor within 18 months and utilize the $1.3 billion headed our way from the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill specifically for water to protect safe drinking water in every community.”

This recent flurry of activity, however, rings hollow to residents who spoke Saturday; Pinkney said it seems as though the Whitmer administration only began to act in urgency after the Benton Harbor Water Council and 20 other environmental groups from across the country filed a Sept. 9 petition with the EPA, prompting international media attention. In the petition, Pinkney and the other filers asked the EPA to provide increased assistance to city and state officials handling the water crisis.

“Can you imagine if we hadn’t filed that petition?” Pinkney asked. “There would be no bottled water from the state.”

Bankole Thompson, the host of the “Redline” radio show, at God’s Household of Faith church in Benton Harbor. | Anna Gustafson photo

Bobby Leddy, a spokesperson for Whitmer, said in a statement to the Advance last week that “since the first lead exceedance was detected in 2018, the state of Michigan has been on the ground in Benton Harbor working with local partners on a solution to address the aging infrastructure.”

State officials said their decision to recently provide bottled water centered around concerns about the efficacy of the tap water filters that state officials have been providing to Benton Harbor residents since 2018. DHHS Director Elizabeth told the Advance that bottled water would continue to be provided until the state could determine whether it was safe for residents to continue to use filters for their drinking water.

The Herald-Palladium, Benton Harbor’s local newspaper, reported Friday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it will soon begin testing the water at about 300 Benton Harbor homes to determine how well the filters are working.

And EGLE Director Liesl Clark said during a state House Oversight Committee hearing in October that while the state did not announce until last month that residents should drink bottled water, both city and state officials provided “educational materials” about the fact that homes tested at elevated lead levels and distributed free water filters to residents beginning in 2018. 

But, in the wake of being exposed to potentially contaminated water for years, residents said elected officials’ words feel meaningless. 

Tina Patterson, the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute in Detroit. | Anna Gustafson photo

“I want the governor to know we are human, like she is, and we also have rights,” said Bobbie Clay, a Benton Harbor resident who, like Kinnard, suspected something was wrong with her water years ago. “We are concerned for our families about the water condition here … To think about them wanting to wait longterm to fix this water problem is scary. How long do you want us to deal with this contaminated water? [State leaders] would themselves not want to come here, run a glass of water from the faucet and drink it.”

Patterson put it more bluntly.

“Rev. Pinkney was sounding the alarm for years, and nobody wanted to listen to him until the petition was filed,” she said. “It’s no good to try to save face now. Just admit you knew the water wasn’t safe, and you didn’t do anything about it.”

In the wake of mounting anger towards the governor, Pinkney said state officials must act to ensure that residents will not have to continue paying for undrinkable water.

“You should not be paying for contaminated water,” Pinkney said as audience members erupted into chants of, “No clean water, no water bills.”

It’s this kind of pressure from residents that Pinkney and other community leaders hailed as the power of community — and specifically the change that comes from activism rooted in Black churches like God’s Household of Faith.

“Most Black folks are connected with some kind of church; that gives us an opportunity to come together,” Pinkney said. “Our goal here is to make sure every single resident of Benton Harbor is made whole. I look at this as an opportunity to come together, stand together and fight.”

[Left to right] The silhouettes of Rev. Edward Pinkney, Tina Patterson and Bankole Thompson in front of a massive stained glass window at God’s Household of Faith church in Benton Harbor on Saturday. | Anna Gustafson photo

Patterson said Black communities and Black residents in the United States “have always had to have our own institutions to push our message and demonstrate our humanity.”

It’s that sentiment — one centered around a tight-knit but beleaguered community facing an outside world that seems to turn its back on Benton Harbor time and again — that individuals often cited during Saturday’s program. A number of residents, including individuals previously interviewed by the Advance, said they feel as though they’re trying to be run out of town, pointing not only to the water crisis but to Whitmer’s 2019 proposal to close Benton Harbor’s high school — which ultimately did not happen — and signs of gentrification, such as the emergence of a golf course that was built on one of Michigan’s oldest public parks and caters to a wealthier clientele.

“The question is raised: is this a gentrification move?” Thompson asked in regards to the water crisis. “ Benton Harbor is prime property right on Lake Michigan.”

“Gentrification is here whether we like it or not,” Pinkney added. “It started with the golf course.”

Still, Thompson said, the world’s eyes are now on Benton Harbor — and people, especially predominantly Black communities, will fight alongside Benton Harbor to ensure they both receive clean water and can remain in their homes, he said.

“This is about the humanity of the Black nation,” Thompson said. “The Benton Harbor struggle is a Detroit struggle, is a Flint struggle. We want the elites in Lansing to understand this.”

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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. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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