For Benton Harbor attorney, the fight for clean water is personal

Residents file second federal lawsuit against state, city leaders over lead-tainted water

By: - December 1, 2021 3:45 am

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

Every day, John R. Beason III picks up bottled water to bring to his 88-year-old grandmother’s house in Benton Harbor because they’re unable to drink from the tap due to elevated levels of lead found in the city’s drinking water.

There, in a modest home in the city in which Beason grew up, in a house where the water has been rendered undrinkable, he operates his law firm. It is here, in a Black-majority city where close to half the population lives in poverty, that Beason explained he is fighting for a hometown he loves — a city he has seen struggle under the weight of systemic racism and disenfranchisement. 

Benton Harbor attorney John R. Beason III | Courtesy photo

As part of that fight, Beason recently filed a $500 million federal lawsuit on behalf of Benton Harbor residents who accuse Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad, and a long list of other state and city officials, of not adequately informing them of elevated levels of lead in Benton Harbor’s water that they allege has sickened them, caused property damage and left their community’s children to face behavioral problems rooted in exposure to lead.

“This is very personal for me,” Beason said of the lawsuit, which seeks class action status and was filed Nov. 20 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan. “I was born and raised here. My grandmother is here; my nieces and nephews and the kids I used to teach are here. I worked in special ed classes with kids probably affected by lead and we didn’t know it.”

The 78-page lawsuit comes after another group of Benton Harbor residents filed a federal suit on Nov. 10 that accuses many of the same defendants of “deliberate indifference” over the lead problems that have plagued the city for years. Lead was first detected in samples of Benton Harbor water in 2018. In early October, state officials advised Benton Harbor’s nearly 10,000 residents to drink bottled water because of dangerously high levels of lead found in some city homes’ water.

Lead is a toxic chemical previously used in paint and water pipes that can cause brain and kidney damage, behavior problems and even death. While lead has been banned for decades in paint and water pipes, its 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.

In an interview with the Advance last week, Whitmer noted the state has an “aggressive” Lead and Copper Rule, which was updated in the wake of the Flint water crisis and results in extensive water testing that’s meant to catch lead issues in Michigan communities. That, she said, is why the lead issues in Benton Harbor were able to be identified. 

“Our red flags go up earlier than any other state,” Whitmer told the Advance

“We’re working with the local community to replace the lead pipes,” the governor continued. “We’re moving fast. We’re already moving dirt and that is in process. We’ll do this quicker than it’s ever been done in other municipalities.”

Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy said in an email Wednesday 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.”

“In accordance with the state’s strict Lead and Copper Rule, the state began urging the city to immediately conduct outreach to residents and ordered the city to apply corrosion control to try to bring down the levels and stabilize the drinking water,” Leddy continued. “That is why the governor has issued an executive directive to bring a whole-of-government approach to ensuring that the people of Benton Harbor have safe drinking water.”

But for Beason and the Benton Harbor residents who filed the lawsuit, these efforts have not been enough; they argue that state and city officials should have told residents to drink bottled water in 2018 instead of this October and more aggressively pursued replacing the city’s lead pipes.

“We want financial compensation for the suffering that people have gone through and the repairs to people’s homes, but, also, in the long run we want the community to have the institutions and programs to train the citizens to run the water plant and other facilities,” said Beason, a Benton Harbor High School graduate who worked with city youth from 2011 to 2014 before pursuing a law career. 

Beason’s lawsuit was originally filed on behalf of 17 Benton Harbor residents and continues to add plaintiffs. The attorney said he has spoken to hundreds of people interested in joining in the suit.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Janet Neff, as has the other Benton Harbor lawsuit. If Neff, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush, grants the suit class action status, essentially every Benton Harbor resident would be eligible to receive money if the plaintiffs win. A federal judge earlier this month approved a $626 million settlement for Flint, another Black-majority city where residents suffered from lead-poisoned water. 

Suit alleges ‘deliberate indifference’ from govt. leaders over Benton Harbor water crisis

In addition to Whitmer and Muhammad, who could face a recall election over the lead issues, the suit names the following defendants: Liesl Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE); Eric Oswald, EGLE’s drinking water division director; former state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Director Robert Gordon; DHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel; former Benton Harbor Water Plant Operator Michael O’Malley; Benton Harbor City Manager Ellis Mitchell; and former Benton Harbor City Manager Darwin Watson. The suit also names EGLE, DHHS, the city of Benton Harbor, Elhorn Engineering Company — which worked with the city to address corrosion in Benton Harbor’s lead pipes, and F&V Resource Management — a private company that currently runs Benton Harbor’s water treatment plant.

The initial plaintiffs in Beason’s lawsuit are: Dwayne Grant and his four children, Anthony Moorer Sr. and his three children, Shania Martin and her four children, Cherita Bynum, Diane Cole, Jasaria Chatwood, Dyondrea Grant, Donnesha Harrell, Betty J. Williams, Gloria Osby, Diane Williams, Isis Sanders, Dennis Guidry, Michael Guidry, Brenda K. Moore, John McCoy and Brian McGhee.

“The Defendants committed egregious and outrageous willful neglect of duty, shocking the consciousness of a reasonable person when, for three consecutive years, they acted with deliberate forbearance to intentionally and knowingly, willfully and consciously withhold information and fail to warn the Plaintiff Class about the presence and their ingestion of neurotoxic lead contaminants in Benton Harbor City tap water from at least 2018 to the present,” the lawsuit states.

Whitmer, Hertel, Clark and other public officials named in the suit said they or their respective departments — Hertel, for example, wasn’t leading DHHS when the first elevated lead levels were detected in Benton Harbor — immediately responded to the city’s water crisis. They said they held press conferences and public meetings, distributed free water filters to residents, tested the water at all Benton Harbor schools and secured funding to replace the lead water lines. 

State officials also said they also immediately began working with Benton Harbor leaders to address the lead pipe corrosion. In March 2019, the city, at the urging of EGLE, began adding what’s known as a “corrosion inhibitor” to the lead pipes in an effort to stop lead from entering the water. The governor also announced in October a plan to replace all of Benton Harbor’s lead pipes within 18 months.

My mother and father-in-law had water plant skills, trade skills programs when they were growing up, but those are gone now. They still exist in St. Joseph. They have everything over there. It’s a crime in and of itself to see that kind of disparity.

– Benton Harbor attorney John R. Beason III

Leddy, Whitmer’s spokesperson, noted in an email on Wednesday that the state is continuing to provide free bottled water to Benton Harbor residents and said the state set “an aggressive timeline to replace all the lead pipes in the next 18 months, which would’ve otherwise taken nearly 15 years to complete under state law.”

In addition to financial compensation, Beason’s suit seeks the establishment of a “medical monitoring facility” that is “designed to discover and treat the effects of lead exposure” in Benton Harbor; training for water treatment staff; and educational facilities and programs that would provide classes and other resources for residents looking for work or to launch their own businesses in a variety of fields, from renewable energy to public works management.

“My mother and father-in-law had water plant skills, trade skills programs when they were growing up, but those are gone now,” Beason said. “They still exist in St. Joseph. They have everything over there. It’s a crime in and of itself to see that kind of disparity.”

St. Joseph is located just across a river that divides Benton Harbor from its predominantly white neighbor, and the stark differences between the two communities have been covered extensively in local, state and national media. In Benton Harbor, residents live 19 fewer years than their white neighbors, and individuals there are two to three times less likely to be able to purchase homes with a bank loan than those in St. Joseph.

Beason’s lawsuit dives into those discrepancies and cites a history of various institutions, including government, turning a blind eye to, and directly causing, a city struggling against the deathly undertows of poverty, white flight and segregation. 

The suit notes the long history of institutionalized racism that Benton Harbor residents have faced and the role that plays in the current water crisis. And it’s not just Beason and the suit’s plaintiffs that cite this: a stream of community leaders have told the Advance that the contaminated water is the outcome of a long history of racism and disinvestment in the city. For example, leaders note 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 Muhammad. 

“In Southwest Michigan, those people with running water are descendants of European immigrants, while those peoples without public water are descendants of indigenous natives of African descent and or colonial-era captives of war,” the lawsuit states.


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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.