Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer visited Benton Harbor in Berrien County on Oct. 19 and met with residents and local leaders who have been urged to use bottled water due to high levels of lead in their tap water.
Benton Harbor, a predominantly black, mostly low-income community of 9,700, is in southwestern Michigan, 100 miles from Chicago.
Lead levels in water have exceeded the federal threshold of 15 parts per billion for three years, and the state subsequently issued a recommendation on Oct. 6 encouraging residents to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods, and mixing powdered infant formula.
The reason for the high levels of lead contamination is unknown, but some experts believe a drop in water volume due to fewer customers may have contributed.
The Michigan Human Department of Health and Human Services stated in its recommendation that it had already delivered more than 4,500 cases of bottled water to the city of Benton Harbor through a local-state partnership, and another 15,500 cases were on the way.
“Every Michigander deserves safe drinking water,” Whitmer said in an Oct. 19 statement. “Today, I visited Benton Harbor to hear from community leaders doing the work on the ground and residents living through water challenges every day.
“I called on the legislature to fully fund lead service line replacement with an additional $11.4 million investment, helping us meet our expedited timeline to replace 100 [percent] of lead service lines in 18 months. Our work will build on the Executive Directive I signed last week to pursue an all-hands-on-deck approach to protect access to safe drinking water right now and make lasting investments in water infrastructure.
“I cannot imagine the stress that moms and dads in Benton Harbor are under as they emerge from a pandemic, work hard to put food on the table, pay the bills, and face a threat to the health of their children. That’s why we will not rest until every parent feels confident to give their kid a glass of water knowing that it is safe.”
The visit came just days after Whitmer signed an executive directive (pdf) to coordinate all available state resources to deliver safe drinking water to residents in Benton Harbor in a bid to tackle the elevated levels of lead within 18 months and replace the lead pipes throughout the city.
Whitmore said the directive implements an “all-hands-on-deck, whole-of-government approach to move forward with urgency and ensure that every parent can give their kid a glass of water with confidence.”
The estimated cost to replace 100 percent of lead service lines in Benton Harbor is $30 million. The state has so far delivered $18.6 million with $10 million in the recently signed FY 2022 budget, $3 million from the MI Clean Water plan, and a $5.6 million Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The governor has called on the Republican-controlled legislature to fully fund the remaining cost of replacement with an additional $11.4 million investment.
In children, even low levels of lead exposure can damage the nervous system, the formation and function of blood cells, and can lead to learning disabilities and impaired hearing, among other things. Young children, infants, and fetuses are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead exposure, but it can also increase the risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage in adults, according to The World Health Organization (WHO).
Whitmer’s visit came hours after the Benton Harbor City Commission unanimously declared a state of emergency and empowered Mayor Marcus Muhammad to lead Benton Harbor’s response.
The emergency authorizes Muhammad to work full time to lead the city during the crisis while working directly with state and federal officials and establishing a community response team that will meet once a week, the Herald Palladium reported.
“In times of public danger or emergency, he may with the consent of the commission take command of the police and such other departments and subordinates of the city as deemed necessary by the commission and maintain order and enforce laws,” Muhammad said in a prepared statement on Oct. 19.
Muhammad also said city officials will travel to Lansing on Oct. 21 to speak with the state House Oversight Committee, which meets at 10:30 a.m.
“We will be part of the discussion as it relates to clean and safe drinking water in the city of Benton Harbor,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.