Federal program pays $150K for overdue water and sewer bills in Benton Harbor

By: - December 14, 2021 10:41 am

The Benton Harbor Water Filtration Plant. | Anna Gustafson

Hundreds of Benton Harbor families facing overdue water and sewer bills have gotten a financial boost from a federal assistance program that has provided a little more than $150,000 to a community still unable to drink its tap water. 

The federal Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP) has paid $151,953 for 237 households with overdue bills in a city of about 10,000 people who can’t use their tap water for drinking, cooking and brushing their teeth because of elevated levels of lead, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced Monday.

To qualify for LIHWAP, a household must: 

  • Have a residential account.
  • Be in arrears or disconnect status.
  • Be under 150% of the federal poverty limit and/or receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Food Assistance Program/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (FAP/SNAP), State Emergency Relief (SER) or Social Security Supplemental Income (SSI).

The federal program “is providing critical support to qualified Benton Harbor residents, so they are not forced to choose between paying for water services and other necessities,” DHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel said in a press release. “Additional resources are available to help families with their utility bills, and I encourage them to seek assistance.”

The federally funded LIHWAP provides assistance to households that have had their water disconnected or are facing disconnection by paying the full amount a family or individual needs to reconnect or prevent disconnection. A payment from the federal program guarantees that households will have service for at least 90 days.

The federal aid comes after state officials in early October advised residents in Benton Harbor, a Black majority city in Southwest Michigan, 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, behavioral problems and even death. 

Since then, state officials have been providing free bottled water to residents through paid volunteers working at community pick-up sites. Volunteers are also distributing water to homes in a city where close to half the population lives in poverty. Work is currently underway to replace the city’s aging lead lines; Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in October called for the city’s lead service lines to be entirely replaced within 18 months. 

In light of the fact that residents are unable to drink their tap water, community leaders have called for a moratorium on water bills. 

“You should not be paying for contaminated water,” Rev. Edward Pinkney, a longtime pastor in Benton Harbor, said during a community forum last month.

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 — noted during the same event that Benton Harbor residents’ have “a high water bill for water we can’t even use.”

State officials said additional federal funds are still available for Benton Harbor residents having difficulty paying their water bills. 

DHHS said residents unable to pay their water and wastewater bills may be able to access other assistance through the State Emergency Relief program. To do so, city residents should call 211.

Benton Harbor residents may also pick up water at Benton Harbor High School, 870 Colfax Ave., on: 

Tuesday, Dec. 14

  • 12 – 2 p.m. 
  • 4 – 6 p.m. 

Wednesday, Dec. 15

  • 12 – 2 p.m. 
  • 4 – 6 p.m. 

Thursday, Dec. 16

  • 12 – 2 p.m. 
  • 4 – 6 p.m. 

Saturday, Dec. 18

  • 12 – 2 p.m. 
  • 2 4 p.m.
  • 4 6 p.m. 

Sunday, Dec. 19

  • 2 4 p.m. 
  • 4 6 p.m.

Monday, Dec. 20

  • 12 – 2 p.m. 
  • 4 – 6 p.m.

Southwest Community Action Agency will host self-serve water pickup at 331 Miller St. in Benton Harbor on:

  • Wednesday, Dec. 15, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
  • Thursday, Dec. 16, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
  • Friday, Dec. 17, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
  • Monday, Dec. 20, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Further water distribution dates and other information about the lead situation in Benton Harbor will be posted at Michigan.gov/MiLeadSafe.

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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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