Benton Harbor women sue Michigan over lead in city’s water

George Hunter
The Detroit News

A class-action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of four Benton Harbor women who accuse state officials of making decisions "which ultimately caused thousands of people to drink and use knowingly unsafe lead-contaminated water."

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the Michigan Court of Claims against the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, is the latest salvo in the controversy surrounding Benton Harbor's water supply. The city exceeded state and federal action levels for three straight years before its samples in the latest August-November period tested right at the action level of 15 parts of lead per billion.

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

In November, 16 Benton Harbor residents filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging state officials concealed a "toxic lead emergency."

"It has been less than six years since the declaration of emergency that made the Flint water crisis worldwide news," the plaintiffs' attorneys at Detroit law firm Liddle Sheets Coulson wrote in 50-page lawsuit. "Unthinkably, here we are again.

"In the nation’s most water-rich state, lead-contaminated municipal water in a majority African American city has once again been pumped into the homes and bodies of thousands of people, including vulnerable children," the suit said.

EGLE's Eric Oswald, who is director of the Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division, is named as a co-defendant in the state suit. Department spokesman Hugh McDiarmid indicated Monday the department would likely not comment on the lawsuit.

"To our knowledge, and the Attorney General's office’s knowledge, no one from EGLE or the state has been served with that lawsuit yet," McDiarmid said.

For more than two years, state and city officials treated Benton Harbor's drinking water with a corrosion chemical blend that failed to control harmful levels of lead. Officials also rejected federal requirements to fully study the treatment's effectiveness, citing the cost.

As state officials waited to see if the treatment reduced lead to acceptable levels, they didn't warn residents that their water was unsafe or provide bottled water until late September.

But the latest lead sampling results have encouraged state officials. "This is encouraging news, an indication that corrosion control treatment is taking hold and reducing the amount of lead getting into the water,” Oswald said in a mid-December statement.

The lawsuit is less enthusiastic.

"Benton Harbor’s approximately 10,000 residents have received their water from a

municipal system that repeatedly triggered alarms that required specific State action. Yet, only recently ... did the State take the shamefully minimal step of telling them to stop drinking the poisonous water," the state lawsuit said.

"While the State did not force Benton Harbor to change water sources as it did with Flint, it nevertheless undertook a series of affirmative, deliberate, and conscious acts and decisions directed at Benton Harbor which ultimately caused thousands of people to drink and use knowingly unsafe, lead-contaminated water from a system it knew had higher lead levels than Flint’s ever recorded," the suit said.

"The State knew that corrosive water was being sent through the Benton Harbor municipal system’s lead piping without adequate corrosion control measures, yet continued to order Benton Harbor to unilaterally apply knowingly ineffective corrosion control measures, sending lead into people’s homes and bodies without informing the public about the dangers it knew were flowing through the system," the lawsuit said.

The suit claims one of the plaintiffs, Angel Guyton, and her children "have suffered serious physical and emotional injuries including, but not limited to, skin rashes and blemishes, severe emotional and psychological distress, and other injuries."

The other plaintiffs, Katie Lynn Reykjalin, Jennifer Janssen-Rogers and Brooke Rosenbaum, each "suffered serious physical and emotional injuries including, but not limited to, severe emotional and psychological distress and other injuries," the lawsuit said.

Staff Writer Leonard N. Fleming contributed.