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Lawsuit alleges city, state government did not properly inform residents of lead-tainted water

Benton Harbor City Hall
Posted at 9:17 PM, Nov 12, 2021

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — As Benton Harbor continues to deal with its lead water crisis, a class action lawsuit has been filed against the city's mayor, along with several state officials, including Governor Whitmer.

In the 63-page lawsuit, 16 people, including several children, say the state and city didn't properly inform them about the high lead levels in their drinking water.

One of the victims claims that she only found out about the lead issue when the state told her to switch to bottled water last month.

"There is an atrocity occurring in the city of Benton Harbor," says Alice Jennings, one of the attorneys representing the families who want justice, "where there have been high lead exceedances of the Safe Water Act now, for over three years."

Jennings says it will be a "David-and-Goliath fight," a fight she says she's planning to see to the end.

FOX 17 reported on the emergence of high lead levels in Benton Harbor's water three years ago.

In a statement, the governor's office says they held a press conference about the lead issue in 2018, then held six additional public meetings between then and February 2020.

The full statement reads:

"Every Michigander deserves access to safe drinking water and every community deserves lead-free pipes. Since the first lead exceedance was detected in 2018, the State of Michigan has been on the ground in Benton Harbor working with local partners on a solution to address the aging infrastructure. In accordance with the state’s strict Lead and Copper Rule, the state began urging the city to immediately conduct outreach to residents and ordered the city to apply corrosion control to try to bring down the levels and stabilize the drinking water. That is why the governor has issued an executive directive to bring a whole-of-government approach to ensuring that the people of Benton Harbor have safe drinking water. The state is providing free bottled water and setting an aggressive timeline to replace all the lead pipes in the next 18 months, which would’ve otherwise taken nearly 15 years to complete under state law. Work began this week to replace lead pipes in Benton Harbor, and we will continue to take every step necessary with the urgency and haste this threat demands to ensure parents in Benton Harbor can give their kids a glass of water with confidence."

But Jennings says her clients don't think the city and state did enough.

"They have a responsibility to the governor and her divisions to make sure each municipality, city, township — if they are running the water system to make sure it complies with federal and state law," says Jennings.

One woman in the lawsuit says her water tested at 886 parts per billion (ppb) for lead. That's almost 60 times higher than the state action level.

She says that she used tap water for her baby formula up until last month.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), drinking water with lead is linked to a number of issues, including premature births along with lower IQ and behavioral issues in children.

"With the children, what we know is that learning difficulties occur with children who have been exposed to lead sometimes to the point where they have to receive what we call an independent educational plan," Jennings explains.

Since last month's advisement to stop using water, the state and federal government have poured millions of dollars into the city. They're providing bottled water through a number of distribution events and plan to remove 6,000 lead lines in 18 months. Work on that got underway this week.

READ MORE: Crews begin removing lead lines from Benton Harbor, but more funding will be needed to finish the job

"I would say it's welcome that something is being done, but it is very, very light and tardy," says Jennings.

We reached out to the Benton Harbor mayor for comment but did not hear back.

Jennings believes there are going to be more people who come forward in the coming days and months. Meanwhile, state and health officials say they will be providing blood testing next week free of charge, so people can see if they've had ongoing lead exposure.

Read the full lawsuit here:

READ MORE: Benton Harbor residents: Pick up bottled water at these locations (Nov. 13–17)

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