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'We never thought it would take this long': Lead in Benton Harbor drinking water continues to frustrate

The State Department of Health and Human Services began distributing cases of bottled water on September 30
Benton Harbor Water
Posted at 5:40 PM, Oct 12, 2021

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — The State of Michigan has begun to address a situation unfolding in the South West region of our state, rolling out resources for families as they deal with tap water coming into their homes that is unsafe to drink or cook with.

On September 30, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services began distributing cases of bottled water to anyone living in Benton Harbor, hosting the sites at churches throughout the city. Later, on October 11, they announced that they would also offer free lead blood tests for children, and home inspections for anyone who shows signs of lead in their system.

FOX 17 spoke Tuesday to Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state department of health and human services, who said they will continue to offer these resources until the situation is resolved.

“People can bathe in it... We advise that they don't drink it, or cook with it, or use it to brush their teeth. As long as they're not ingesting it, right now that's what we're advising,” Director Hertel said in a phone interview Tuesday.

It's all solid progress, advocates say, unfortunately they believe it has come about 3 years late.

“We never thought it would take this long, 3 whole years,” Reverend Edward Pinkney, president and chairman of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, told FOX 17 Tuesday afternoon.

He says their focus was turned to the quality of their water in 2018, when a daughter of one of the council's members came to visit from out of state.

“Her daughter came from Texas and wanted to take a bath, and when she filled the tub up it was full of this brown-yellow, looked like little particles in the water,” Reverend Pinkney explained.

With an invaluable outsider's perspective, she brought her concerns about the water to Reverend Pinkley, who after trying to approach local officials to no avail, helped send out the sample to the University of Michigan's biological lab.

Saying, “they examined it... it came out to be more than 300 parts per billion. From there, we decided we had to do something, so we went to work.”

Their community council began working with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“The state agency wasn’t really responding to the fact that people were drinking lead-contaminated water. They were really focused on tweaking the chemicals at the treatment plant to see if they could keep the levels of lead down that was being released into the water, and they weren’t,” explained Cyndi Roper, a senior policy advocate with the NRDC.

After the councils held an initial round table meeting with officials from the EPA, leaving unsatisfied with the conversation, they submitted an emergency petition with the agency on September 9.

“Since the petition was filed with the EPA, the state has started to take action," Roper said.

"It has been really piecemeal. It hasn’t been a comprehensive response. We think they are moving in the right direction, but they still have not declared the water in Benton Harbor is not safe.”

Governor Gretchen Whitmer has said she would allocate 20 million dollars to remove and replace the lead pipes over the next 5 years, but advocates say that wait is simply too long.

They believe 3 things should be done immediately— the bottled water distribution sites should continue indefinitely, the Army Core of Engineers should be called in to replace all of the city's lead pipes within a year's time, and the state should officially declare their water unsafe.

“The highest levels that have been found so far are 889 parts per billion," Roper said Tuesday.

"That is like 60 times above this federal trigger for action, and the federal trigger is not safe. No amount of lead in our water is safe.”

For them and their efforts, this is not about offering temporary resources out of an abundance of caution, but rather a seriously dangerous situation that could easily lead to their neighbors dying.

Benton Harbor water distribution schedule
Benton Harbor Water
A glass of tap water filled up in front of FOX 17 cameras Tuesday in Benton Harbor

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