‘It’s a disaster for kids’

New lawsuit alleges state, city officials left Benton Harbor children to drink lead-poisoned water for years

By: - June 7, 2022 6:39 am

Benton Harbor resident Nathan Smith takes bottled water to car outside the Bottled water at God’s Household of Faith Church Oct. 15. | Anna Gustafson

The children in Benton Harbor are changing.

They are “more moody, more short-tempered, they’re not doing as well in school,” said Corey Stern, an attorney with the New York City-based law firm Levy Konigsberg, who at the end of May filed a lawsuit on behalf of about 400 Benton Harbor children who the suit alleges were exposed to lead-contaminated water for years due to the failings of city and state officials.

As an attorney who has represented thousands of children who drank lead-poisoned water in Flint, Stern knows these changes in children well – and he said Benton Harbor’s families are bracing themselves for what he, and they, expect will come.

“There’s a reality that these problems get worse,” said Stern, who alongside Levy Konigsberg attorneys Kimberly Russell and Amber Long, filed the 111-page lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids on May 27. “We won’t know the full effect of these problems until the kids are adults. They’ll have a much more difficult time learning; they’re far less likely to graduate from high school; they’re far less likely to go to college. …It makes it difficult for them to work; it creates shame and self doubt. It’s a disaster for kids. And it’s something that happens slowly and invisibly.”

Stern’s lawsuit arrives after state officials in October advised Benton Harbor’s nearly 10,000 residents 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. Several other lawsuits have previously been filed on behalf of residents in Benton Harbor, a city in Southwest Michigan where 85% of the residents are Black and nearly half of whom live in poverty.

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 Flint and Benton Harbor, which are more likely to have lead pipes than white areas, according to a report from the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund of New York.

They’ll have a much more difficult time learning; they’re far less likely to graduate from high school; they’re far less likely to go to college. … It makes it difficult for them to work; it creates shame and self doubt. It’s a disaster for kids. And it’s something that happens slowly and invisibly.

– Attorney Corey Stern on the impact of lead poisoning

Defendants in Stern’s lawsuit include the city of Benton Harbor; Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad; former Benton Harbor water plant Superintendent Michael O’Malley; former Benton Harbor City Manager Darwin Watson; Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) Director Liesl Clark; EGLE Drinking Water Division Director Eric Oswald; EGLE environmental engineer Ernest Sarkipato; EGLE lead and copper unit Supervisor Brandon Onan; Elhorn Engineering Company, which worked with the city to address corrosion in Benton Harbor’s lead pipes; and F&V Operations and Resource Management, a private company that currently runs Benton Harbor’s water treatment plant.

“Because of Defendants’ conduct, Plaintiffs now suffer from devastating, lifelong, irreversible impairments and health problems,” the lawsuit states.

“The effects of lead poisoning on a child are well known and heartbreakingly permanent,” the suit goes on to say. “Plaintiffs have and will forever suffer cognitive deficits; Plaintiffs will have a reduced earning capacity compared to Plaintiffs’ peers; and Plaintiffs will feel shame throughout their lives as each of them struggles to keep up with classmates, family members, and ultimately coworkers.”

Facing mounting lawsuits and widespread public criticism, state officials said they immediately addressed the high levels of lead in Benton Harbor’s water. 

“EGLE looks forward to responding to this lawsuit and outlining how the agency not only met, but exceeded its statutory obligations in overseeing and assisting the City of Benton Harbor in aggressively addressing its lead issue in municipal drinking water,” EGLE said in a statement provided to the Advance.

Muhammad, Benton Harbor’s mayor, did not respond to a request for comment for this article but has said in previous statements regarding lawsuits filed against him that he and other city officials are focused on efforts to replace the city’s aging lead lines – which city and state officials have pointed to as the reason behind the lead-tainted water.

A mural in downtown Benton Harbor. | Anna Gustafson

State officials announced last week that more than 50% of the city’s lead lines have been replaced with new copper lines or verified as lead-free. As of Monday afternoon, the state’s Benton Harbor project dashboard reported that 2,495 lead lines have been replaced or labeled as lead-free, leaving 1,949 lines to be completed. 

In an interview with the Advance late last year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has been named as a defendant in previous lawsuits, but not in the most recent one, 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’ll do this quicker than it’s ever been done in other municipalities.”

In late March, Whitmer signed the Building Michigan Together Plan, which included $45 million in funding to address water infrastructure issues in Benton Harbor. Previous funding to replace the lead lines included a $5.6 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) helped to secure in 2020. State officials said this level of funding means Benton Harbor has the resources it needs to comply with the governor’s order that all of the city’s lead lines be replaced by the spring 2023.

State officials have emphasized that 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.

They’ve also said they 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 announced in October the plan to replace all of Benton Harbor’s lead pipes within 18 months.

Recent water testing in Benton Harbor found lead levels have dropped in the city, but they are still high enough that residents cannot drink from their taps. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is continuing to provide free bottled water to Benton Harbor residents for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula. 

There’s literally no amount of money that any parent in the world would take and say, ‘Yeah, this is a good amount of money; let’s go ahead and lead poison my kid. Whatever these kids get, no matter how much it is, it will never be enough to compensate them for how much they ultimately lost, which is their potential.

– Attorney Corey Stern

While state officials said they went above and beyond to address the lead-contaminated water in Benton Harbor, the most recent lawsuit alleges that officials “severely downplayed the urgency of the water crisis.”

After lead was first documented to be in samples of Benton Harbor homes’ water, the lawsuit alleges that city and state officials “went to great efforts to minimize and cover up the urgency of the situation.”

“Defendants also exacerbated the crisis by concealing and misrepresenting its scope, failing to take effective remedial action to eliminate it, and then lying about it to cover up their misconduct,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit says that an Oct. 24, 2018, advisory from EGLE about the lead found in water samples “did not warn or instruct residents against drinking the water.”

“In fact, it asked residents and water users to consider using cold tap water for drinking and cooking,” the lawsuit says.

This downplaying left the city’s population to believe that it was fine to drink their water, despite the fact that health experts stipulate no level of lead exposure is safe, the lawsuit says. 

“For at least three years Benton Harbor residents and water users drank and used water contaminated with high levels of lead,” the lawsuit says.

While the lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages, no amount of money will save children poisoned by lead from a lifetime of pain, Stern said.

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

“There’s literally no amount of money that any parent in the world would take and say, ‘Yeah, this is a good amount of money; let’s go ahead and lead poison my kid,” Stern said. “Whatever these kids get, no matter how much it is, it will never be enough to compensate them for how much they ultimately lost, which is their potential.”

While Stern is careful to point out that every child’s experience with lead poisoning is different, there are also commonalities that dominate stories from families affected by lead poisoning: ones of decreased IQ, increased blood pressure and anemia, stunted growth, and seizures. According to research from Princeton University and Brown University, children exposed to lead during their preschool years significantly increases the chance that they will be suspended or incarcerated during their school years. Academics have also said the drop in crime over the past few decades could be tied to fewer children being exposed to lead.

In Flint, where tens of thousands of children have been exposed to lead, the number of students who qualify for special education has almost doubled since the lead crisis began in 2014, going from 15% to 28%.

Now, parents in Benton Harbor are reporting similar issues as those in Flint, Stern said.

“We’re hearing from parents in Benton Harbor the same thing we heard from parents in Flint: their kids are changing,” Stern said.

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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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