Benton Harbor residents gather inside God’s Household of Faith church for a meeting on the city’s water in November 2021 | Anna Gustafson photo
State officials announced this week that a major milestone had been reached in the city of Benton Harbor, as more than 50% of the lead lines had been replaced with new copper lines or verified as lead-free.
On Tuesday, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) Director Liesl Clark gathered in Benton Harbor with Debra Shore, Region 5 administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), to provide the public an update on the ongoing efforts.
“This is really exciting progress,” said Clark. “When we first embarked on this project, we thought it was going to be 18 months. Certainly you get the easier ones done first, so there’s still a lot of work in front of us, but I’m thrilled with the progress that has been happening. Let’s be clear that the work is the city’s work and the contractor’s work, so we’re grateful from the state’s perspective and supportive of that effort.”
In all, six contractors overseeing 15 crews have been averaging 18 lead service line replacements per day, In the last 30 days, they have replaced 551 lead service lines with copper.
According to EGLE’s Benton Harbor project dashboard, as of Thursday morning, 2,277 water service lines were replaced or verified as lead-free, leaving 2,165 to complete for a 51.3% completion rate.
$45 million in funding for the effort comes from the Building Michigan Together Plan, signed in late March by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, which state officials say ensures Benton Harbor will have the resources needed to comply with Whitmer’s order that all service lines be fully replaced by the spring of 2023.
EGLE says that of the 2,900 current water customers in Benton Harbor, approximately 2,300 have signed “Right of Access” Water Service Line Replacement Agreement forms that allow contractors access to private properties in order to perform the work.
Michigan’s Lead and Copper Rule, which is the strictest in the nation, requires every community to replace 5% of its lead service lines every year, resulting in 100% compliance within 20 years. However, if the lead content exceeds action level, they are required to replace their lines at a rate of 7% per year, which would accelerate 100% completion to just under 15 years.
In Benton Harbor, lead was first documented in municipal water supplies in 2018, followed by multiple water advisories over the next two and a half years.
However, the issue took on new urgency last year after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found a series of “violations and deficiencies” at the city’s water treatment plant, and ordered “immediate action” to protect residents from the lead-contaminated water that left thousands of city residents, the majority of whom are Black and nearly half of whom live in poverty, unable to drink from their taps.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) continues to provide free bottled water for Benton Harbor residents to use for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula, although officials say that tap water can still be used for “showering or bathing (avoid swallowing water), washing hands, washing dishes, laundry, and cleaning.”
EPA officials used Tuesday’s gathering to reiterate the findings of a recent study confirming that certified filters, when properly installed and maintained, have been effective in reducing lead in Benton Harbor’s drinking water.
The Berrien County Health Department provides those filters free of charge.
Meanwhile, three class-action lawsuits have been brought in connection with Benton Harbor’s lead contamination. The latest, filed in December 2021, claims a decision by state officials concerning a corrosion control study, left “thousands of people to drink and use knowingly unsafe lead-contaminated water.”
Michigan officials, including Whitmer, have pushed back against those claims as mischaracterizing their efforts.
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