The Benton Harbor water tower. | Anna Gustafson
After years of dangerously high lead levels that have left Benton Harbor’s 10,000 residents unable to drink their tap water, the most recent round of state-ordered testing showed “a significant reduction” of lead in the city’s water, state officials announced Wednesday.
Despite this decrease, lead — a toxic chemical that can cause brain and kidney damage, behavioral problems and even death — is still present in the city water, and residents should continue to use bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing their teeth, state officials said.
“This is encouraging news, an indication that corrosion control treatment is taking hold and reducing the amount of lead getting into the water,” Eric Oswald, director of the Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), said in a prepared statement.
Water samples taken from faucets at 63 Benton Harbor homes from August through November showed results ranging from no detection of lead to 48 parts per billion. While officials noted that is a drop in lead levels from past testing, there were still six samples that tested above what’s known as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “action threshold, or 15 parts per billion, which is how water lead levels are measured. Previous tests of tap water from Benton Harbor homes reported such levels as 889, 605, 469, 109 and 107 ppb, according to the state.
To address the ongoing presence of lead in the city’s water, state officials said they will continue to provide free bottled water to Benton Harbor residents. The state first announced in October that residents should drink bottled water because of high lead levels, drawing ire from community members who said the state should have better communicated to residents about the lead problems when the toxic chemical was first discovered in the city’s water in 2018.
Oswald, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and a long list of other state and Benton Harbor officials have been named in two lawsuits filed by residents who accused the leaders of “deliberate indifference” over the years-long water crisis.
State officials have said they immediately began working with Benton Harbor leaders to address the lead pipe corrosion once the elevated lead levels were detected. 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.
Oswald noted on Wednesday that the state will continue its “efforts to assist the city in aggressively reducing lead exposure through lead service line replacement, corrosion control and working to overcome aging infrastructure challenges.”
Work is currently underway to replace the city’s aging lead lines; Whitmer in October called for the city’s lead service lines to be entirely replaced within 18 months.
Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad, who also has been named in the lawsuits and faces a recall petition over his administration’s response to the water crisis, praised the state for the most recent testing.
“We appreciate the work of the experts at EGLE and the care that was taken in making sure the samples were collected the right way and that the tests were done properly,” Muhammad said in a prepared statement. “We are making progress in our work and this instills more confidence in the process we are following.”
The most recent round of water testing in Benton Harbor is required by Michigan’s 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.
Both Flint and Benton Harbor are Black-majority cities where a large portion of the population lives in poverty — a demographic makeup that community leaders and environmental and racial equity advocates have noted is prevalent in cities across the country where high levels of lead have been found. According to a 2020 report from the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund of New York, communities of color are more likely to have lead pipes than white areas.
Benton Harbor’s aging infrastructure, which officials routinely cite as the reason for the lead levels in the city, is not the root of the problem, community leaders have emphasized. The lead in the city’s water is a result of systemic racism and decades of disinvestment in the city, Benton Harbor residents have said.
Muhammad, for example, said in a previous interview with the Advance that a former city emergency manager appointed by former Gov. Rick Snyder laid off the city 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.
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