Michigan to replace lead pipes in Benton Harbor in 18 months amid drinking water crisis

There has been high levels of lead in the city's water for the past 3 years.

October 15, 2021, 12:48 PM

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive directive Thursday to help residents of Benton Harbor access safe drinking water, vowing to replace all lead pipes by April 2023.

The directive comes a week after officials urged locals in Benton Harbor, a city of 9,600 people, to use bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing teeth due to elevated levels of lead in water testing.

"For six consecutive sampling periods over the last three years, the Benton Harbor water system has failed to meet the regulatory standard for lead," the governor said in the directive.

Advocates in the city had filed an emergency petition to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Sept. 9 demanding a federal intervention to aid in the crisis.

In this Sept. 15, 2021 file photo Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at Kettering University in Flint, Mich.
Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP, FILE

In the directive, the governor announced she’ll expedite lead service line replacements to be completed in 18 months, up from the prior five-year timeline. The effort will also continue to give free bottled water to Benton Harbor residents and free or low-cost drinking water testing and health services.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has received U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service (USDA) approval to provide Benton Harbor residents specific baby formula that does not require the mixing of water.

The effort will be funded by federal, state and local resources, with additional federal funding expected through the infrastructure bill currently moving through Congress. Under Michigan's 2022 state budget, $10 million is dedicated to replace service lines in Benton Harbor.

“I cannot imagine the stress that moms and dads in Benton Harbor are under as they emerge from a pandemic, work hard to put food on the table, pay the bills, and face a threat to the health of their children," Whitmer said in a statement. "We will not rest until the job is done and every parent feels confident to give their kid a glass of water knowing that it is safe."

Rev. Edward Pinkney, a local activist and president of the grassroots Benton Harbor Community Water Council, touted the directive as a victory.

"Without the petition, none of this could have happened. I am more than happy that Whitmer is now taking this a little bit more seriously," he told ABC News. "But, I want her to tell the people that the water is unsafe to drink rather than saying this is out of 'an abundance of caution.'"

Benton Harbor sources its water from Lake Michigan. Elevated lead levels in water has been an issue for several years in the city, where 85% of the population is Black, 5% Hispanic and about 45% have an income below the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Census.

A water tower is pictured, Oct. 24, 2018, near downtown Benton Harbor, Mich.
Don Campbell/The Herald-Palladium via AP, FILE

Lead can enter drinking water when plumbing materials and service lines contain lead corrosion. Lead exposure harms brain development in children and it causes both short and long-term health problems for adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The EPA has a lead contamination action level of 15 parts per billion. If water samples hit that mark, officials are supposed to take several actions to educate the public and restore water to a safe level.

In Benton Harbor, water testing surpassed that level in 2018. One home in 2020 tested at 440 ppb for lead. Eleven homes tested this year showed water with lead levels above 15 ppb, with one home hitting 889 ppb -- nearly 60 times the EPA's action level, according to data released by the city.

According to the petition filed with the EPA, Benton Harbor has 5,877 total service lines, 51% of which "are known to contain lead, are known to be galvanized lines previously connected to lead, or are of unknown material but likely to contain lead." Just 2% of service lines contain zero lead.

The crisis echoes the Flint, Michigan, crisis in 2014 and 2015 where the state switched the city's water supply to come from the Flint River. An investigation later found there were highly toxic levels of lead in the water.