Benton Harbor's water lead levels drop, but still at federal action level: state agency

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Lead levels have fallen in Benton Harbor's drinking water in the latest half-year sampling, but are still at the federal action level, state officials said Wednesday — a level that experts have said remains unsafe. 

Water samples from 63 homes from August to November showed the 90th percentile was at 15 parts per billion, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. The southwest Michigan city has exceeded the federal standard for three straight years, starting at 22 ppb in 2018 and 24 ppb in the last sampling for the first half of this year.

A lone resident of Benton Harbor, Mich., walks across Britain Street Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, near the city's water tower in Benton Harbor.

Public health experts have said no level of lead in drinking water is safe. 

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 before the latest results. 

The August-November samples showed that the results ranged from no lead detection to 48 ppb, which state officials described as a "significant reduction from high levels" found in previous sampling periods. Six samples, they added, still had more 15 ppb in the water tested.

"This is encouraging news, an indication that corrosion control treatment is taking hold and reducing the amount of lead getting into the water," said Eric Oswald, director of EGLE’s Drinking Water and Environmental Health division, in a statement. "This does not lessen the urgency around our continuing efforts to assist the city in aggressively reducing lead exposure through lead service line replacement, corrosion control and working to overcome aging infrastructure challenges.

Benton Harbor has had three straight years of lead results exceeding federal and state standards since 2018, which then triggered six-month rounds of testing to measure the lead in the drinking water in the impoverished city of nearly 10,000 residents.

Oswald said corrosion control treatment used in Benton Harbor is done by introducing phosphate into the water supply to coat the lead service lines and fixtures, which reduces the amount of lead that dissolves when water passes through those materials.

The corrosion control treatment had been criticized by environmentalists and water quality experts because the lead levels in Benton Harbor had been rising. It also was the subject of a scathing petition to the Environmental Protection Agency that criticized EGLE for not safeguarding the drinking water for residents or declaring an emergency.

The filing was followed by a pledge from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration to spend millions of dollars to expedite lead pipe removals in hopes of lowering the lead levels faster.

The Detroit News reported last week that the consulting firm operating Benton Harbor's water treatment plant ordered additional water samples at homes in the first half of 2021 after lead testing through May showed the highest level of lead in three years in the city's drinking water.

The resampling reduced the initial result of 33 ppb to 24 ppb, a trajectory level from the previous six-month testing period.

The city of Benton Harbor didn't do any resampling this time, EGLE spokesman Scott Dean said in a Wednesday email.

The state discarded three samples from the 90th percentile calculation because one home (no lead detection) already had replaced its lead service line, another sample (no lead detection) wasn't preserved for 14 days as required by federal rules and the last was a duplicate sample from the same residence, Dean said. The highest lead result of the two was used in the calculation, he added.

The compressed testing period isn't unusual, Dean said.

"As a general rule we encourage water systems to front end load their sampling efforts to early in the monitoring period so they have extra time if EGLE identifies issues that may require additional samples to be drawn to reach the number of Tier 1 sites required under the rule," he said in the email.

Rev. Edward Pinkney, whose Benton Harbor Community Water Council group had previously collected drinking water samples since 2019, said he’s concerned because he believes the city and state are “cherry-picking” houses to sample to show lower lead levels based on the first-half results. “There’s not a doubt in my mind,” Pinkney said. 

“Even at 15 parts per billion, I wouldn’t be jumping up and down at that,” he said. “Fifteen is high. We don’t know how you sampled the houses. We don’t know if you went to homes with higher levels of lead."

Rev. Ed Pinkney of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council said the latest sampling that found 15 parts per billion of lead in the city's drinking water remains too high and unsafe for residents to drink.

Pinkney argued the state is working toward taking people off of bottled water too early before the water is safe to drink. The state hasn't announced any end to bottled water deliveries.

 "We appreciate the work of the experts at EGLE and the care that was taken in making sure the samples were collected the right way and that the tests were done properly," Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said in a statement. "We are making progress in our work and this instills more confidence in the process we are following."