BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — The sound of progress and promise reverberated through Benton Harbor this week, as crews began removing the first of thousands of lead water lines three years after elevated lead levels were found in the majority-Black city’s drinking water.
On Tuesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer visited Benton Harbor and watched as construction moved along. Whitmer's goal is to have all of the city's lead lines replaced in an expedited 18 months.
It’s a roughly $30 million job to remove and replace all lead lines in the city, with nearly $19 million of the cost already accounted for and a little more than $11 million left until the project is fully funded.
"I am proud of the progress we are making, and I look forward to much more. I am confident that we can meet our goal to replace 100% of lead service lines in Benton Harbor within 18 months and utilize the $1.3 billion headed our way from the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill specifically for water to protect safe drinking water in every community," Whitmer said.
"This really is an 'all-hands-on-deck' effort to ensure folks in Benton Harbor and across the country have access to clean water. Period," says U.S. Rep Fred Upton (R–St. Joseph), who helped secure more than $5 million for line replacement.
City leaders and the governor are calling on the Republican-led legislature to utilize federal COVID relief money to fill the gap.
“We need $11.4 [million] minimum to be able to say in 18 months, hopefully, that the city of Benton Harbor is lead-free,” Bentor Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad told the House Oversight Committee last month.
The legislature has billions in funding left on the table after the passing of the American Rescue Plan earlier this year.
Michigan's Senate Appropriations Committee is currently working on a comprehensive water plan, made up of more than $2.5 billion in federal money that includes $600 million for lead line replacement.
Senate GOP leaders say they want to get the money allocated by the end of the year.
In the meantime, Benton Harbor residents will rely on plastic bottles and water filters, as the work to replace toxic lines ramps up.
To determine the effectiveness of filters in homes there, the EPA will be testing drinking water in the city starting this week. Federal officials and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services will be seeing if the filters are working properly to reduce lead and also see if the compound is coming from the home’s plumbing or service line.