BENTON HARBOR, Michigan (AP) – Shortly after sunrise on a recent Saturday in Benton Harbor, Michigan, residents began to line up for free bottled water so they could drink and cook without fear of high lead levels in the city’s tap water …
Free water points are an integral part of life in most black cities in the southwestern corner of Michigan, where nearly half of the nearly 10,000 residents live below the poverty line. Over the course of three years, tests of his water supply showed elevated levels of lead.
Waiting for free bottled water is time-consuming, and some residents are wondering why the state, which recently faced a water crisis in Flint, hasn’t gotten around to it sooner.
“It’s exhausting,” Rhonda Nelson said as she waited in line at the Benton Harbor Boys and Girls Clubs’ property.
“I understand what Flint was going through, I really understand,” she said.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has pledged to spend millions of dollars to replace major service lines in the city within 18 months – a fast paced pace for a process that often takes decades. At the moment, residents have been warned not to cook, drink and prepare infant formula with tap water.
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Residents worry about what elevated lead levels mean for the health of their families. The problem is also uncomfortable and stressful. Drivers line up early at the water distribution stations, taking people away from work and family. Bottled water must be used carefully so that it does not spill out. Even waiting in a queue has consequences – idling wastes gasoline, for which drivers have to pay more often.
Standing in line, LaKina Crawford worried about the consequences for her 8-year-old daughter, who she saw trying to turn on the water.
“I said no! Crawford said, adding that she wants her daughter to understand that lead in water is dangerous. But “I don’t want to scare her too much.”
Lead exposure can slow cognitive development, especially in young children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and federal officials say that no amount of lead in drinking water is considered safe for consumption. In recent months, activists have pushed for more immediate and aggressive action, and the state has stepped up its response.
Some are wondering if the problem could have been resolved more quickly if the residents of Benton Harbor were more like the predominantly white residents of nearby St. Joseph.
“Sometimes you just have to declare racism, and that’s what it sounds like,” Amby Bell said while helping distribute water to residents.
Millions of aging underground wires connect buildings to plumbing throughout the country, mostly in the Midwest, but also scattered across other states such as New Jersey and Massachusetts. Old pipes can pose a serious threat to public health. In Newark, New Jersey, there were ongoing problems with the lead water supply, resulting in the rapid replacement of thousands of lead pipes. Strong test results in Clarksburg, West Virginia raised alarm bells earlier this year. Flint is now synonymous with the lead water problem.
Digging and replacing major service lines is expensive and requires limited local budgets. Infrastructure and harmonization bills, pending congressional consideration, include billions to tackle the issue of leading line replacement, which activists say could go a long way.
Flint’s lead water problem began when the city switched its water source to the Flint River as a temporary saving measure without proper treatment, which led to corrosion of the lead pipes. But the water source in Benton Harbor, Lake Michigan, is considered safe, and many other places take water there, said city manager Ellis Mitchell.
“Our problem is clearly in our own infrastructure,” he said.
On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency identified a number of violations at the Benton Harbor waterworks. According to the EPA, the federal inspectorate has found the problems are so serious that the city needs to consider a foreclosure.
“The people of Benton Harbor have suffered for far too long,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.
The water supply systems sometimes give good test results, but in Benton Harbor the authorities were unable to refute them. The long-term solution is to replace approximately 2,400 pipes that may contain lead, government officials said.
The city also lacks resources. Previous governors appointed emergency managers with broad decision-making powers, which led to staff cuts and the city’s population shrank, reducing its tax base.
“This is leading to a reduction in the technical, managerial and financial capacity of the water withdrawal due to inadequate investment in personnel, equipment and training,” said Scott Dean, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
Following the Flint water crisis, Michigan tightened its drinking water lead requirements in 2018, boasting that it passed the nation’s most protective law. He set more stringent requirements for testing water for lead and required replacement of old lead lines.
Environmental groups and local activists petitioned Benton Harbor in September with the EPA, calling for aggressive action. Rev. Edward Pinckney, the activist named in the petition, said that if they had not applied, an aggressive official response could take even longer.
“We couldn’t take it anymore,” Pinckney said.
Last month, the Michigan House of Representatives oversight committee held a hearing in the Benton Harbor case. Republican committee chairman Stephen Johnson asked why the state’s recent response to the city’s flagship crisis appears to have “gone from zero to 100 miles per hour,” even though the problem has persisted for years.
Michigan officials say they took the issue seriously.
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In 2019, local authorities offered filters to Benton Harbor residents to reduce the amount of lead in drinking water. Eric Oswald, director of the state’s drinking water division, told listeners that federal officials are examining the filters to make sure they are working properly. They also worked to control corrosion to reduce the amount of lead entering drinking water from pipes. While the overall results for the lead sample are still too high, the proportion of the high values has declined, officials said.
In addition, outreach activities, which began in 2018, included city halls, liaison with the local press, and public notices, officials said. Inspectors, however, condemned the city for failing to notify water consumers on water bills of the problem over the past year.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and professor at Michigan State University, raised the alarm early about Flint. She receives questions from her parents about whether any developmental problems may be related to lead in the water. However, it is extremely difficult to establish a direct link between the problem of human health and the content of lead in water.
“This is why lead poisoning has so long shied away from diagnosis, treatment and prevention,” she said, adding that lead exposure is unsafe for children and it is too early to predict what the long-term effects might be. Lead levels can vary by household and people can react differently to exposure. The impact can also be influenced by other factors, such as poverty, she said, making it particularly important to tackle the problem in cities such as Benton Harbor.
Mark A. Edwards, a Virginia engineering professor who specializes in water purification, said the focus on Benton Harbor underscores the nation’s problem with cities battling elevated levels of lead. He said lead water crises like Flint undermine public confidence in the official management of water systems.
Sylvester Bounce, who wears a prosthetic leg on his right leg, said he drank bottled water for years because he doesn’t trust Benton Harbor water.
Pushing a makeshift cart filled with several boxes of bottled water half a mile to his home, he said the water supply was temporarily shut off due to a broken water supply, so without running water, he not only needs bottled water for drinking, but also water for basic needs. , for example, to fill his toilets.
“Water is everything,” Bounces said. “It’s like gold.”
Residents who are at home can call support to deliver water, but Bones said the process is too time-consuming and unreliable. Government officials said hundreds of people have been added to the weekly supply list. They said that if there are problems, residents should report them.
Mitchell, a city manager, said last month that customers are being billed for water that authorities say can be used for tasks such as doing laundry and dishes. He said the city is investigating “if there is any relief we can get from this” for residents.
At the boys ‘and girls’ club, volunteers distributed about 2,200 boxes of water by noon.
Nelson, who has 12 and 14-year-old daughters and a 5-year-old son, said it might take 15 to 20 bottles of water to make dinner. “Hopefully they’ll fix it soon,” she said.
Greg Johnson, who first stopped at around 8:15 a.m., said he arrived early to resupply his family for his 8 and 11 year old daughters.
“In the morning you need two suitcases to get them ready for school,” he said. “They need to be washed and all that. It’s pretty hectic. “