LANSING, Mich. — Local and state officials defended their response to Benton Harbor’s water crisis during a House Oversight Committee hearing on Thursday.
Lawmakers questioned the recent attention on the Benton Harbor water crisis despite it dating back three years.
Representatives from Michigan’s environmental agency said efforts to reduce the elevated lead levels in the city’s aging water pipes began a few months after routine tests revealed troubling results.
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Eric Oswald, the head of the state’s drinking water division, said chemicals were added to control corrosion in pipes in 2019. The dose was increased a year later in 2020. He noted the chemicals can take one to two years for a coat to form and protect the water.
According to testimony, residents were told to flush, filter, and use bottled water if they had health issues that would be inflamed by lead exposure while officials worked to secure funding to replace the lines. Public education about lead exposure was also put out every six months.
Oswald and Lisa Clark, director of Michigan’s Department of Environment and Great Lakes Energy, said the move to recommend bottled water earlier this month came after the city continued to exceed lead action levels despite the controls. Additionally, a recent analysis questioned the effectiveness of tap filters in Newark, New Jersey. A federal study is being conducted to see if the filters are safe for use in Benton Harbor.
Critics of the state’s response say a petition filed with the Environmental Protection Agency by a group of Benton Harbor residents in September is the real reason for the intervention.
Nearly $19 million in state and federal funds have been set aside to replace the pipes, but Marcus Muhammad, Benton Harbor’s mayor, says an additional $11.4 million is needed to meet the state’s goal of replacing all 6,000 lines within the next 18 months.
The city says 100 lines are currently under contract to be repaired and expects to add 200 more lines by the end of the year.
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