Whitmer seeks $20M to replace lead pipes in Benton Harbor

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday she wants to pump $20 million into Benton Harbor to replace its lead pipes that have led to repeated exceedances of the state's water safety limits.

The governor's announcement came after The Detroit News reported on Benton Harbor’s six straight lead exceedances that have caused ire and frustration among residents concerned about lead exposure in their drinking water. Whitmer said she would like the pipes replaced in five years.

Whitmer’s plan through the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy is part of a $200 million proposed expansion of her state Clean Water Plan to remove lead service lines across the state. The governor called on the Republican-led Legislature to use federal COVID stimulus money from the American Rescue Plan to ensure the public safe drinking water.

Republican lawmakers and Whitmer's Democratic administration continue to negotiate about next year's budget before the fiscal year begins Oct. 1. 

“Every Michigander deserves access to safe drinking water and every community deserves lead-free pipes,” the governor said in a news release. “We must make long overdue upgrades to our water infrastructure and build on the progress we have made under the MI Clean Water Plan to replace lead pipes, fix sewer systems and tackle PFAS in our water supply. I will work to get people the help they need right now and make lasting, structural investments in infrastructure to protect public health.”

Benton Harbor Water Filtration Plant

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey is willing to spend state money to fix water infrastructure issues through a Protect MI Water plan, Shirkey spokeswoman Abby Walls said Wednesday.

"The Michigan Senate is more than happy to spend at least $200 million on lead service line replacement. In fact, we proposed $600 million in June in our $2.5 billion water, dams and sewer lines supplemental proposal," Walls said.

The southwest Michigan city issued a public advisory last month noting it found more than 10% of recent water samples from 78 homes exceeded the action level of 15 parts per billion for lead, resulting in an average reading of 24 parts per billion.

The Rev. Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, welcomed Whitmer's pledge "to help the people of Benton Harbor, but we’re parched from years of waiting for safe water. 

“For at least three years, the people of Benton Harbor have been living with lead-contaminated drinking water, which is why we urgently need safe water right now. Today," Pinkney said in a Wednesday statement. "That’s why tomorrow, community members from Benton Harbor, together with allied organizations, will ask the federal government to provide an emergency supply of safe drinking water. We cannot wait one day more to seek help for our elders and our kids, who are our future.”

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad, who has been urging along with resident groups to speed up the pipe replacement process, welcomed Whitmer's move.

“I am grateful for this investment in our community and committed to working with our partners at the state level to help families have access to safe drinking water," the mayor said. “My office, the Berrien County Health Department and the state health department are committed to providing filters to families and using the $20 million investment to replace 100% of our lead service lines in five years. Together, I know we can get this done.”

Elin Betanzo, a former Environmental Protection Agency official and water quality expert who helped expose the Flint water crisis, applauded the effort and said it’s urgent to move quickly.

“The state Legislature needs to approve the new funding to get the lead lines out because no one should be drinking water from a lead service line,” she said. “It's also critical that the U.S. Congress fully fund lead service line replacement in the budget reconciliation.”

Democrats are trying to move a $3.5 trillion budget proposal through Congress but have run into roadblocks in the Senate. 

State officials also said they plan to ensure that all families in Benton Harbor have access to free installation of in-home drinking water filters and lead awareness training during the accelerated water infrastructure upgrade work. Benton Harbor’s recently reported a lead exceedance violated Michigan’s strict Lead and Copper rule.

“The health of every Michigander is intimately tied to the quality of their drinking water,” said Liesl Clark, the director of EGLE. “This $200 million proposal to modernize our aging, inadequate water infrastructure in communities across Michigan and expedite relief efforts to Benton Harbor is an important step towards protecting public health. Water infrastructure is a priority, and we will continue working together to ensure every Michiganders has access to safe drinking water.”

State officials said Benton Harbor has approximately 6,000 water service lines, with most consisting of lead or unknown materials. 

“I urge leaders in DC to come together to pass the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act so we can replace lead service lines nationwide and ensure every parent can give their kid a glass of water at the dinner table with confidence that it's safe,” Whitmer said.

The estimated cost of replacing Benton Harbor’s water service lines is nearly $30 million. Under the existing $500 million MI Clean Water Plan, which sets aside $102 million specifically for lead service line replacement, EGLE will be awarding a $3 million allocation through the State Revolving Fund next month to Benton Harbor.

In addition, the state department earlier this year supported Benton Harbor’s efforts to secure a $5.6 million federal grant to start replacing its lead pipes.

“Safe drinking water in Benton Harbor and other communities is vitally important for DHHS to meet its mission of improving the health, safety, and prosperity of all residents in the State of Michigan,” said Elizabeth Hertel, the director of the state Health and Human Services department. “When we remove lead service lines, we can deliver health and opportunity to all Michiganders and promote health equity.”

The $200 million proposed expansion and the $102 million included in the existing MI Clean Water Plan will put $302 million toward replacing lead service lines statewide, officials said.

Michigan has among nation’s most stringent state-level regulations on lead exposure in drinking water. A 2018 rule from the Snyder administration requires communities to replace all their lead service lines by 2041.

The governor also created the Office of the Clean Water Public Advocate to investigate drinking water concerns, make recommendations to EGLE and the governor’s office to partner with communities like Benton Harbor and ensure that their concerns are addressed and connect them to resources.