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Troubling, but not unexpected: EPA and EGLE issue report outlining violations at Benton Harbor's water plant

While the city works to remove and replace all lead water lines, they will now also need to correct a series of violations at their water filtration plant
beenton harbor epa report
Posted at 5:33 PM, Nov 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-03 17:33:50-04

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — While the city works to remove and replace all lead water lines within the next 18 months, they will now also need to correct a series of issues at their water filtration plant. A joint inspection into the plant's operations by the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) found various "violations and deficiencies" at the city's treatment facility.

"The findings are troubling, but they weren't altogether unexpected," Hugh McDiarmid Jr, communications manager for EGLE, told FOX 17 in an interview Wednesday.

Community activists on the ground in Benton Harbor say they found lead in water coming into people's homes as far back as 2018. They have been pushing the state to act on those results since then.

Only in the past month though has Governor Gretchen Whitmer agreed to a plan that will see 100% of the lead water lines in Benton Harbor removed within the next 18 months.

Activists have cheered the Governor's announcement, butt their work continues. Volunteers (who the state will now compensate $15 an hour) continue to distribute cases of bottled water.

According to a press release from thee state's department of health and human services, over 119,000 cases of water have so far been distributed.

A joint inspection report and order from the EPA released this week is now outlining a series of violations and deficiencies found at Benton Harbor's water plant— an entirely separate set of issuers from the lead.

While the report detailed a number of violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the city will not be required to pay any fines.

"The mechanical... integrity of the water plant, the qualifications of the operators. It was a huge, big picture look," McDiarmid said.

“These outstanding and long-standing problems at the water plant with equipment that doesn't work properly, and procedures that aren't followed.”

The EPA and EGLE will work cooperativeely with the city to fix the issues found at the plant.

The inspection also found the the city had not properly followed certain requirements for notifying residents after lead levels were detected in the water supply.

"There are certain requirements when you trigger a lead exceedance under the federal rules and the state rules, that you notify the public in various ways," McDiarmid said.

“They have been in six consecutive six-month sampling periods where they've exceeded the lead action level, and they're required to notify various parties, most importantly, the citizens of Benton Harbor. They did that, but they didn't do a complete job of it.”

McDiarmid says many of the problems have arisen out of Benton Harbor's declining population and tax base.

“They have a rate base and a taxpayer base that has shrunk to about half the size that it once was in the city's heyday," McDiarmid said.

“You have a water system that's designed to... serve twice as many people as it does now, so, the funding for the upkeep on that plant is not coming in as it should.”

In fact, Benton Harbor's population hit it's peak in the 1960's, with just over 19,000 people. In 2020, that number was down to slightly under 10,000.

Benton Harbor Population

“We really appreciate the city's approach to this," McDiarmid said Wednesday.

"They're not being defensive about it. They acknowledged the problems, they acknowledged the need for assistance.... in funding and other areas to help address those, and we stand ready to do that.”

The City of Benton Harbor now has 120 days to either fix the problems at the water plant outlined in the report, or submit a compliance plan to the EPA, outlining the course of action they plan to take to address the violations and deficiencies.

You can read the full report from the EPA and EGLE here.

Water Plant 1950 Article
News-Palladium Article from December 30, 1950