(The Center Square) – For more than two years, state officials failed to control harmful lead levels in Benton Harbor’s water supply that they knew about since 2018.
Take two Michigan administrations: one ran by Republicans and one by Democrats. Under each watch, lead polluted the water lines of a majority-Black city, with little to no recourse for injured residents.
The state didn’t warn residents of unsafe drinking water or provide alternatives such as bottled water until September, the Detroit News reported.
Toxicology research has proven lead exposure above certain limits harms brain development in children and can cause long-term health problems.
The News reported some residents and environmentalists have given up on waiting for Michigan to solve this problem and have filed for an emergency petition for the federal government to intervene to provide safe drinking water to the city. The petition claims the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) violated state and federal rules by delaying "a fully compliant corrosion control study."
"Michigan has the strongest lead in drinking water regulation in the nation, so how did another majority Black city get to three years of elevated lead levels in drinking water without anybody really batting an eye?" Executive Director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center Nick Leonard told the News.
Rev. Edward Pinkney, the Benton Harbor Community Water Council president, told the News that EGLE should have warned residents three years ago that the water “was not drinkable.”
"That was the No. 1 thing that they could have come out and said, 'Do not drink the water.' But they failed to do so," Pinkney said. "They are in denial. You never hear them talk about how bad the water is ... in three years. That's criminal.”
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services says, since Sept. 30 of this year, 33,591 cases of water have been distributed to Benton Harbor, with additional shipments scheduled for delivery.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed Executive Order 2020-06 on Thursday. The EO aims to coordinate state resources to provide safe drinking water to Benton Harbor. Whitmer said the state will expedite lead service line replacements with a goal to replace all Benton Harbor lead service lines in 18 months.
The EO says Benton Harbor residents must have access to free bottled water and be offered free or low-cost lead-related services,
“Every Michigander deserves safe drinking water, and every community deserves lead-free pipes,” Whitmer said in a statement. “I’m proud to sign an Executive Directive today that will pursue a whole-of-government approach to protect access to safe drinking water right now and work tirelessly to replace every lead service line in Benton Harbor as soon as possible. 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.”
The state requested federal authorization of WIC ready-to-feed formula for Benton Harbor residents currently receiving powder or liquid concentrate formula that doesn’t require the addition of water and would be redeemed like current formula benefits.
The state also notified the federal government to expand Medicaid Child Health Insurance Program Health Services Initiative funds for lead prevention services for Benton Harbor households. Once complete, families with children under 19 years old enrolled in a Medicaid Health Plan or a pregnant person enrolled would be eligible for a free environmental investigation into lead hazards.
Critics say the action is too little, too late.
“It took Governor Whitmer two years to acknowledge a public health crisis was unfolding in Benton Harbor and she still has not declared a public health emergency,” Michigan Rising Action Director Eric Ventimiglia said in a statement. “Whitmer’s failures are getting more and more dangerous, and she cannot even be bothered to show up to explain what her administration will do to rectify the situation.”