Nessel warns Benton Harbor residents to watch for price gouging on bottled water amid lead crisis

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on Friday warned residents in Benton Harbor and surrounding communities to be on the lookout for price gouging on bottled water amid the city's lead-tainted water crisis. 

The attorney general's warning comes after state health officials in late September recommended Benton Harbor residents only use bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing their teeth. 

"This has created new concerns over potential price-gouging of bottled water being sold in Benton Harbor and surrounding areas," Nessel's office said in a statement. "The demand for bottled water has created an opportunity for local retailers to take unfair advantage of consumers who need to be able to buy affordable product."

Earlier this week, The Detroit News reported state environmental officials had been slow to respond to the crisis by not warning residents that the drinking water was unsafe and that the state's corrosion control measures did not work. The city has endured three straight years of lead exceedances. 

A forklift driver hauls a pallet of bottled water to hand out to residents of Benton Harbor on Oct. 7, 2021 from the Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on Friday warned residents in Benton Harbor and surrounding communities to be on the lookout for bottled water price gouging amid the city's water crisis.

On Thursday, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist vowed that the state will find millions of dollars needed to replace lead service lines in 18 months, calling it an “appropriate escalation” to address the water concerns. 

The effort is part of an executive directive by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office that will continue delivery of bottled water, health care and other services for Benton Harbor residents while pipes are replaced.

Thursday's announcement followed criticism by residents and environmental groups about delays in addressing water concerns and the timetable is faster than a prior plan to budget $20 million for a five-year removal process. Whitmer recently signed a budget bill with a $10 million appropriation for Benton Harbor lead pipe replacement.

Nessel's office stressed Friday if residents believe a retailer is charging a price "grossly in excess" of what others are charging for similar goods, to contact her Consumer Protection Division at (877) 765-8388.

Also Friday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced two updated locations for residents to get free bottled water over the weekend and that it has initiated efforts to begin deliveries to students, teachers, and support staff along with residents in multi-family dwellings.

Pallets of water were delivered to two apartment complexes, Harbor City Flats and Harbor Towers. Deliveries to the Benton Harbor Areas Schools begin next week.

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.

MDHHS said it's working with the Benton Harbor Housing Commission to schedule deliveries to an expanded list of locations next week. 

Since Sept. 30, 38,028 cases of water have been distributed with additional shipments scheduled for delivery to the city, the state said. 

Water distribution on Saturday will take place from 10 a.m. to noon at the Family Dollar, 481 Pipestone Street, and from noon to 2 p.m. at Ebenezer Baptist Church, 214 E. Britain Avenue.

On Sunday, water will be distributed from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Abundant Life Church of God, 693 Columbus Avenue and from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Brotherhood of All Nations, 1286 Monroe Street.

From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, water also will be distributed at Abundant Life Church of God.

To arrange water delivery for homebound residents in Benton Harbor or those without transportation, please contact 211, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

For questions about lead, MDHHS can be reached at (866) 691-5323 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.