Benton Harbor residents wait to pick up bottled water Oct. 15. | Anna Gustafson
State officials’ decisions around the water crisis in Benton Harbor, including allegedly pushing off a corrosion control study, left “thousands of people to drink and use knowingly unsafe lead-contaminated water,” according to a new class-action lawsuit.
“It has been less than six years since the declaration of emergency that made the Flint water crisis worldwide news,” states the 44-page lawsuit filed with the Michigan Court of Claims on Dec. 29. “Unthinkably, here we are again. In the nation’s most water-rich state, lead-contaminated municipal water in a majority African American city has once again been pumped into the homes and bodies of thousands of people, including vulnerable children. This case involves the ultimate inexcusable repeat of history.”
Filed by the Detroit-based Liddle Sheets Coulson law firm, the suit comes after state officials in October advised Benton Harbor’s residents — the majority of whom are Black and nearly half of whom live in poverty — to drink bottled water because of elevated lead levels in the city’s water. Lead was first detected in samples of Benton Harbor water in 2018; it is a toxic chemical that can cause brain and kidney damage, behavioral problems and death.
The suit’s named plaintiffs are three Benton Harbor residents — Angel Guyton, Katie Lynn Reykjalin and Jennifer Janssen-Rogers — and one Benton Harbor business owner,
Brooke Rosenbaum. Unlike the other two class-action lawsuits filed in regards to Benton Harbor’s water crisis, the most recent lawsuit lists the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and Eric Oswald, director of EGLE’s Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division, as its sole defendants. The first two suits were filed against a long list of state and city officials, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad, and the state Department of Health and Human Services, among many others.
“Despite purporting to pass laws that would ensure that such a crisis [Flint] would not occur again, the state of Michigan, through EGLE, has fostered an utter catastrophe for a community it was charged to protect,” the most recent lawsuit states.
“Benton Harbor’s approximately 10,000 residents have received their water from a municipal system that repeatedly triggered alarms that required specific state action. Yet, only recently, in October 2021, did the state take the shamefully minimal step of telling them to stop drinking the poisonous water.”
The most recent lawsuit seeks “monetary, equitable and declaratory relief” but does not stipulate an exact amount being sought. The case has been assigned to Judge Elizabeth Gleicher.
EGLE disagreed with the lawsuit’s characterizations of its efforts to address the water crisis in Benton Harbor.
“EGLE looks forward to addressing the issues raised in this lawsuit before a court,” EGLE said in a statement provided to the Advance. “We are confident that the actions the agency took to assist Benton Harbor in addressing the city water system’s lead exceedances were appropriate, defensible, legal and effective. The evidence of that is present in the voluminous release of emails, data and analysis that EGLE has made publicly and transparently accessible.”
The lawsuit alleges that EGLE officials “unilaterally took over and dictated the corrosion control treatment scheme that Benton Harbor was required to initiate” to address the problems emanating from the city’s century-old lead pipes.
In the nation’s most water-rich state, lead-contaminated municipal water in a majority African American city has once again been pumped into the homes and bodies of thousands of people, including vulnerable children.
– Class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Benton Harbor residents
Though the control treatment did not work and samples of Benton Harbor homes’ water continued to test positive for elevated lead levels, EGLE delayed a corrosion control study, which the Michigan Lead and Copper Rule requires to be done within 12 months from the time the city was put under an advisory for reporting high levels of lead, the lawsuit says. EGLE did not begin the process of launching a corrosion control study until three years after the initial elevated lead level was reported, the lawsuit alleges.
Facing mounting lawsuits and widespread public criticism, state officials have said they immediately addressed the high levels of lead in Benton Harbor’s water.
In an interview with the Advance at the end of November, 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.”
State officials have 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 after the elevated lead levels were discovered.
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.
The most recent round of testing in Benton Harbor found lead levels have dropped, but they are still high enough that residents cannot drink from their taps.
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