Emergency petition filed with EPA over Benton Harbor drinking water lead levels

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

A collection of environmental and residential groups representing Benton Harbor filed an emergency petition on Thursday with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to provide safe drinking water after three straight years of tests that exceed allowable lead levels.

The petition cited the failure of city and state officials to act to protect the residents of the southwestern city off Lake Michigan to high exposure to lead in its water system.

It also seeks alternative drinking water sources such as an emergency supply of water, that the city be required to advise residents not to drink unfiltered water, and require safe drinking water be provided for schools.

With comparisons to the Flint Water Crisis, the groups including the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center said three years with lead violations of Michigan's stringent lead and copper rule has been too long for Benton Harbor residents.

"We need safe water right now," said Rev. Edward Pinkney, who is the president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council. He has been complaining for years to city and state officials from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy as well as the EPA with little action, he said. 

"We can't wait three years to seek help. We cannot wait six months to seek help. We can't even wait one week to seek help," Pinkney said. "We need help now for our elders, for our children. Lead is poison."

Nick Leonard, the executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, said his group has tried to intervene previously to no avail.

"A number of petitioners met with folks at EGLE in late 2019 to talk about things we thought were problematic with their response," Leonard said. "And their answer at the time was, things are under control, lead levels are going down, we've got this. And that simply wasn't the case."

Leonard said in recent sampling periods, lead levels have been higher than in the initial lead exceedance in the fall of 2018. That year eight homes tested above 15 parts per billion and the highest was only 60 ppb, compared to 2021 where 11 homes tested above 15 pbb with the highest coming in at 889 ppb.

"There's been...a lack of urgency, a lack of response that we found really troubling," he said. "Benton Harbor residents have been living with this for far too long."

The zoom news conference to announce the EPA petition comes a day after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday she wants to pump $20 million into Benton Harbor to replace its lead pipes in five years.

Whitmer’s plan is part of a $200 million proposed expansion of her state Clean Water Plan to remove lead service lines across the state.

Benton Harbor 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.