Benton Harbor's water crisis highlights failing infrastructure's impact on the poor
Residents have been forced to use bottled water due to lead contamination.
The small town of Benton Harbor is the latest example of decaying infrastructure and historic divestment leading to a water crisis in the state of Michigan.
Car lines have been wrapped around blocks for weeks at local distribution locations where many low-income residents are collecting cases of bottled water after state and city officials advised them not to use the tap water due to high levels of lead contamination.
"You still have to pay for water you can't drink, you can't brush your teeth with, you can't cook with, or bathe with it," said Rev. Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council. "No city in this country should have to go through what Benton Harbor went through for the past three years."
Benton Harbor's water system has exceeded EPA standards for lead contamination since 2018, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. In six tests over that period, each six months apart, at least 10% of the water samples taken from homes and businesses in the city have shown lead contamination above 15 parts per billion.
Pinkney, along with a coalition of environmental and community organizations, filed an emergency petition in early September asking for an intervention by the Environmental Protection Agency, citing Benton Harbor's water contamination as a "persistent, widespread, and severe public health crisis rising to the level of substantial endangerment."
Following the petition, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order to provide bottled water, filters and premixed baby formula to residents. She also pledged to replace the city's lead pipes over the next 18 months, a project that will cost approximately $30 million.
"All resources are going to help Benton Harbor eliminate this problem," said Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad. "We still have many homes to test. There are over approximately 6,000 lead service lines, old infrastructure in the ground, along with homeowners who have lead pipes in the home. So this is where we have to test, investigate and as we do that we'll remove lead service lines."
Benton Harbor's water crisis is the latest example of failing infrastructure further disenfranchising its residents. With a poverty level of 45%, according to 2019 U.S. Census data, the city has battled high unemployment and economic decline for decades due to low investment from private and government sectors, according to Muhammad.
"The disparity, the hopelessness and abandonment in this city has gone on for years," Muhammad said, explaining that more state and federal financial resources are needed not only to replace the pipes but also revitalize the economy.
Benton Harbor, which is 90.5% nonwhite, and where median household income is only $21,916, according to 2019 Census data, is not unlike other poorer, majority nonwhite cities when it comes to lead water contamination.
An ABC News analysis of EPA data shows that 1 in 6 majority nonwhite ZIP codes has at least one water district with excessive lead contamination, compared to 1 in 8 majority white ZIP codes. And 1 in 4 of America's poorest ZIP codes -- where median household income is less than $35,000 -- has at least one water district with excessive lead contamination, compared to 1 in 11 of America's wealthiest ZIP codes, where median household income is more than $75,000.
Benton Harbor is one of only 76 water districts across the U.S. that has had three or more tests exceeding the EPA lead standard since 2018, according to the analysis.
"It's an old city with old infrastructure," Gillian Conrad, communications manager for the Berrien County Department of Health, told ABC News. "It's pretty well documented that communities that have high levels of poverty and lower-income communities that are predominantly Black and brown, and communities that have suffered from disinvestment over the years -- in infrastructure, in community engagement, all of those things -- are directly correlated to environmental issues that can pop up like lead in drinking water."
Conrad is stepping down Oct. 29, unrelated to the water crisis, instead citing the COVID-19 pandemic's toll on her "mental, emotional and physical health."
Advocates say the city's crisis highlights infrastructure woes across the country.
"Unfortunately, we've really been living off of the investments of our grandparents who built the water treatment plants and who put the pipes in. Many of them, unfortunately ... they're starting to fall apart. They are failing," said Eric Olsen, senior strategic director for health at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Congressional lawmakers in Washington are negotiating a historic deal on infrastructure that would allocate a $55 billion investment in clean drinking water, including dedicated funding to replace all lead pipes and service lines in the nation. It's a federal intervention that Olsen said states and local governments sorely need.
"Our water systems really are sort of underground ticking time bombs because not only do we have lead pipes all over the country in all 50 states, but we have these aging water mains that burst 250,000 times a year across the country," Olsen said.
ABC News' Mark Nichols contributed to this report.