Construction has finally begun in Benton Harbor, Michigan, to replace the lead-tainted service lines that have been poisoning the predominantly Black community's water supply for years.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer went the western Michigan city on Tuesday to visit a construction site where the first lead service lines are being replaced after the governor previously announced a commitment to remove 100% of the lead service lines in 18 months.
"I am proud of the progress we are making, and I look forward to much more," Whitmer said in a statement. "I am confident that we can meet our goal to replace 100% of lead service lines in Benton Harbor within 18 months and utilize the $1.3 billion headed our way from the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill specifically for water to protect safe drinking water in every community."
Whitmer said she attended a community meeting to hear "directly from people on the ground doing the work to help residents."
"We will not rest until every parent feels confident to give their kid a glass of water, knowing that it is safe," the governor added.
Some residents have expressed remorse that the government action and attention to the water crisis is coming too late.
Elevated levels of lead have been detected in the Benton Harbor's water system since at least 2018, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council petition filed in September to the Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of local advocacy groups and residents.
Residents live with "significant and dangerous levels of lead contamination three years after the contamination was first discovered with no immediate solution in sight," the petition stated, calling it an "environmental justice" issue.
Some 45% of Benton Harbor residents live in poverty and 85% are Black, according to the most-recent Census data. The crisis has also shined a harsh spotlight on the real-world impacts of the nation's dilapidated infrastructure as lawmakers in the nation's capital are mulling over the Biden administration's $1 trillion "Build Back Better" infrastructure plans.
The estimated cost to replace 100% of the lead service lines in Benton Harbor is $30 million, according to Whitmer's office. So far, state lawmakers have earmarked some $18.6 million, but a deficit of some $11.4 million remains. Whitmer has previously called on the state legislature to secure this money using the remaining federal funds sent to Michigan through the pandemic-era American Rescue Plan.
"We need to get the lead out of Benton Harbor ASAP and this funding will replace approximately 100 lead service lines right now," Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said in a statement Tuesday. "My focus is on protecting the residents of this great city and I look forward to 100% of the lead lines being replaced on an aggressive timeline of 18 months to make sure families have access to safe drinking water."
Last month, Whitmer signed an executive directive that sought to use all available tools to tackle the Benton Harbor water crisis. Some of the actions the directive takes includes ensuring residents continue to have access to free bottled water until further notice (though the distribution of this water has faced some hurdles), offering free or low-cost lead-related services such as drinking water testing kits, and more.
Lead poisoning can bring a slew of detrimental health impacts, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns, including: abdominal pain, constipation, headaches, irritability, loss of appetite, pain or tingling in the hands and/or feet and weakness.
Moreover, census data from Benton Harbor further indicates that nearly 28% of the population is children under 18 years old. The CDC states on its website that lead generally affects children more than it does adults, and children tend to show signs of severe lead toxicity at lower levels than adults.