Environmental chief defends state's water response in Benton Harbor

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan's environmental director dodged a lawmaker's question about the safety of Benton Harbor's drinking water four times Thursday before finally saying it was unsafe.

Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy Director Liesl Clark initially just responded the state was providing bottled water to the community. 

"Let's just talk like normal people here, it's a normal question: Is the water in Benton Harbor safe to drink or not?" Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, said during a Thursday House Oversight Committee hearing. 

"No, it's not. People should be drinking bottled water," Clark said. 

Residents of Benton Harbor receive cases of bottled water on Oct. 7, 2021 from the Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency through a state-funded program. The group distributed 1,638 cases of bottled water due to unsafe levels of lead in the city's drinking water.

The exchange came as the department director described myriad factors that have ratcheted up attention on the Benton Harbor water crisis: Drinking water samples exceeded action levels for the sixth time in three years at the end of June; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns that filters distributed to homeowners might not be working; and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration earlier this month asked residents to use bottled water and expedited replacement of lead service lines in the city. 

Critics of the state's response have argued the real reason the state stepped up its response was because of residents' Sept. 9 petition asking the EPA to intervene in the city's case.

Thursday's hearing was tinged with political undertones that have persisted through what is now two lead-related water crises in Michigan: The role of emergency management in Black majority, low-income communities; a dearth of money to fix aging infrastructure; and missed opportunities to act sooner and more aggressively.

The combination of the EPA's study into the effectiveness of the water filters; the involvement of the Department of Health and Human Services, which usually opines on drinking water safety; and sporadic lead test results from some homes made it difficult to answer the question regarding the safety of the city's water, Clark said. The situation is "urgent and inexcusable," she said, but she emphasized the only long-term solution to the problem is to remove the lead service lines.

"We must recognize that our shared goal of safe drinking water for all Benton Harbor residents will not be achieved until we get all the lead pipes out of the ground," Clark said. 

Elevated lead levels were first detected in Benton Harbor in 2018 during routine testing. Much of the city's water distribution system is about 100 years old. State and city officials treated Benton Harbor's drinking water with a corrosion chemical blend that failed to control harmful levels of lead for more than two years and rejected federal requirements to fully study its effectiveness, The Detroit News reported last week.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on Oct. 6 expanded the availability of bottled water in Benton Harbor "out of an abundance of caution," and encouraged residents to use it for cooking, drinking, rinsing foods and brushing teeth. On Oct. 14, Whitmer signed an executive directive implementing an "all-hands-on-deck" approach to replace 100% of the lead service lines in the city within 18 months. 

Thursday's oversight hearing comes a few days after the chairman for the Senate Oversight Committee asked Whitmer's administration to provide communications between Jan. 1, 2019 and Oct. 15, 2021 related to its handling of elevated lead levels in Benton Harbor's drinking water. Sen. Ed McBroom gave the department 10 days to produce the documents. 

Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy Director Liesel Clark said Thursday that Benton Harbor's drinking water is not safe. "People should be drinking bottled water," Clark said in response to state lawmaker questioning.

Benton Harbor officials on Thursday defended the Democratic governor — who has been criticized for allowing the city to exceed lead action levels for nearly three years. They instead argued it was the GOP-led Legislature that failed to properly fund repairs and it was state emergency managers between 2010 and 2017 who cut spending to balance the budget. 

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said the city needs another $11.4 million to supplement the $18.6 million it has already secured to replace its lead service lines. With the money in place, the city hopes to meet the governor's 18-month timeline for replacing the lead service lines.

"We can declare a state of emergency, but without the money and resources, nothing can be done," Muhammad said. "...If you know this is an urgent 911, then cut the check."

Muhammad told reporters after the hearing that he had not heard from Benton Harbor's state lawmakers — Sen. Kim LaSata, R-Bainbridge Township, and Rep. Pauline Wendzel, R-Watervliet — on the water issue since 2018. 

Wendzel and LaSata both noted they had been part of the legislative majority that included about $10 million in the most recent budget specifically for Benton Harbor. 

In a Thursday statement, Wendzel said she has always and will always "fight for my community," but added that "the administration and city officials will have a lot of questions to answer about how this situation developed in the first place."

“Today’s House Oversight Committee answered some questions, but it raised others — such as why the governor’s administration did not request Benton Harbor-specific funding to address this situation in the previous two fiscal years," Wendzel said.

LaSata said Thursday she would be joining efforts to hand out water in Benton Harbor and said her top priority is "making sure everyone in Benton Harbor has access to safe drinking water."

“Lead line replacement is something I have been working on both in the district and in Lansing," she said in a statement. "It impacts so many communities, and it’s important that we give it our due diligence and get these repairs done correctly."

Johnson questioned both Clark and Muhammad about why the issues in Benton Harbor were not brought to the attention of the Legislature earlier, noting that neither the city nor the state asked for specific appropriations for Benton Harbor drinking water in 2019 or 2020. Clark argued the agency had asked for half a billion dollars for a general clean water program. 

“We weren’t aware of this three years ago," Johnson said. "That’s the problem. This was never elevated to us. ...I’m glad we’re having this conversation now. I wish we would have had it two or three years ago.”

Upon questioning from Johnson about whether he drank bottled water while Benton Harbor residents were left with conflicting advice about its safety, Muhammad said his home was one of those tested for lead and none was detected. Still, he said he has avoided using his own tap water over the past three years. 

"I still use it for brushing teeth, for cooking; however, I’ve always drank bottled water because I don’t like the chlorine, fluoride and other chemicals," Muhammad said. 

After the hearing, Muhammad criticized the emergency management system the city was under from 2010 to 2017, arguing the emergency managers "came to put a tombstone" on the city. The emergency manager attempted to sell the water plant and, when that fell through, "abandoned it" and laid off half the staff, he said.

"There was no mention of infrastructure; there was no mention of lead," Muhammed said. "There was simply bean countin' and trying to balance the budget. "

eleblanc@detroitnews.com