Benton Harbor urged to use bottled water due to lead risk
Correction: The state recommends bottled water for cooking, drinking and brushing teeth; tap water may be used for showering or bathing, for washing hands, dishes and clothing, and for cleaning. The type of water acceptable for these uses has been corrected in this article.
Benton Harbor residents were strongly urged Wednesday by the state to drink and cook with bottled water as the state officials seek to fend off criticism that they hadn't done enough to respond to three straight years of elevated lead levels in the city.
The move by the state Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy came nearly a week after EGLE officials began to make bottled water available to residents in the southwest Michigan city under pressure from environmental and activist groups.
"We’ve listened to the community’s concerns and out of an abundance of caution, we are recommending that residents use bottled water for cooking, drinking and brushing teeth," Michigan Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel said in a statement.
Bottled water should also be used for rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula, officials said.
In recent sampling periods, lead levels have been even higher than in the initial lead exceedance in fall 2018, the first year of the violation to the state's stringent lead and copper rule. That year, eight homes tested above 15 parts per billion and the highest was 60 ppb. In 2021, 11 homes tested above 15 ppb with the highest coming in at 889 ppb.
Benton Harbor becomes the second major Michigan city to move to bottled water at the urgency of the state. Flint endured a water crisis that briefly received national attention roughly five years ago after homes there showed excessive lead levels after its water wasn't properly treated with corrosion controls following a switch to corrosive Flint River water. At one point, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found lead levels as high as 13,000 parts per billion there.
For three straight years, Benton Harbor’s water sampling for lead has exceeded state limits and the amounts of lead found in Flint before it became engulfed in its crisis in 2015. It is also longer than when Parchment, near Kalamazoo, had two consecutive years of excessive lead levels before its lead pipes were replaced in 2020.
Last month, the EPA received a scathing emergency petition from environmental groups lambasting EGLE and the city of Benton Harbor for failing to provide residents with safe drinking water such as bottled water after the three straight years of lead exceedances.
In addition to the water distribution, EGLE officials have agreed to better educate residents about how to use water filters after criticism that the process didn't inform them them on how to properly install the filters. The petition was filed in September by groups including the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, the Benton Harbor Community Water Council and other organizations.
The decision by state officials "is a step in the right direction," said Cyndi Roper, the senior policy advocate for the National Resources Defense Council. But it should have come much earlier after many warnings about how unsafe the lead-tainted water has been, she said.
"The community groups have been asking for the state to come up with this type of response for years now," Roper said. "There's still a lot of details to that need to be worked out with the community. But again, we need to be sure that communities are listened to when they bring these issues forward and that we are believing them."
So far, state officials say they have delivered more than 4,500 cases of bottled water and filters through a local-state partnership. They expect another 15,500 cases to be distributed soon to the mostly low-income city of nearly 10,000 residents, most of whom are Black.
Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said he's been working with the state and county officials to help "resolve the problem for the short, long term and immediate" and is "pleased to see them stepping in."
"In the immediate, there's a saying where a good firefighter would rather respond to 10 false calls and not respond and miss one," Muhammad said. "Every household is being treated as if lead is in the house. So that's why the alert came out to bottled water for certain things."
Benton Harbor resident George Dixon has mostly dodged the lead in the city’s water system. He and his family have been buying water in bottles and jugs for years.
“I always drank bottled water,” said Dixon, 33. “I always have, even before this crisis.”
But it can be a struggle to get enough bottled water, which Dixon estimates costs his family $100 a month.
Since warnings of elevated lead levels in the city’s water supply, other Benton Harbor residents have been taking on the same expense. Dixon is a barber and said his customers wish they had access to clean water.
“They spend money on bottled water,” said Dixon, who talks about the water supply with customers who come visit him at KingsMen Cuts. “More money than they should have to.”
Dixon said the city, state or federal government should make water and filters easier to find.
“Their focus should be more on the health and the concern of the kids,” he said.
State officials said the EPA is conducting a filter effectiveness study to gather data and provide confidence in the effectiveness of water filters to reduce lead in drinking water. The free bottled water will be provided as long as needed, they said. Further information on the completion date of the study will be shared by EPA when available.
The state last month said it would go door-to-door to distribute filters and show people how to install them. But in its latest statement, the state officials said the federal government is studying how effective the filters are in reducing lead in drinking water.
Meanwhile, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last month announced a plan to remove the estimated 2,400 or more lead pipes in Benton Harbor within five years. Environmental groups and others said it can be done faster. EGLE said that lead pipes are a major reason for lead in the water but environmental groups said corrosion control has failed as well.
In the $70 billion budget that Whitmer recently signed into law, $10 million was earmarked for use in replacing lead service lines in Benton Harbor. It was a reduction from the $20 million that the governor initially sought.
Another $15 million would be added to a fund to help the state address drinking water emergencies.
Benton Harbor water distribution
When: 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday
Where: Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency, 331 Miller
When: 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Friday
Where: God’s Household of Faith, 275 Pipestone
Additional dates and locations for bottled water pick-up will be posted at Michigan.gov/MiLeadSafe.
Residents who are unable to pick up water or require water delivery can call 800-815-5485 to schedule drop-offs.
Staff Writer Carol Thompson contributed.