EPA: Keep Benton Harbor on bottled water until drinking water safe

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday told environmentalists who petitioned for safe drinking water for Benton Harbor after three straight years of lead limits exceeding standards that it recommends the city stay on bottled water.

The EPA issued the formal response, saying bottled water should remain available "as federal, state, and local officials seek to remedy high levels of lead in the city’s drinking water."

More than 20 environmental and civil rights groups filed an emergency petition five months ago to the EPA seeking federal intervention to restore safe drinking water to the impoverished, majority-Black city.. 

In November, the EPA identified deficiencies in Benton Harbor's water system  and criticized Benton Harbor officials for a lack of records and insufficient public notice of elevated lead levels and chlorine analyzing tools that had been "offline" for about two weeks.

Volunteers distribute bottled water to residents Oct. 21, 2021, at Benton Harbor High School. A water main break Wednesday left most city residents without water as the city deals with lead pipe water quality issues.

The federal agency's 23-page order directed the southwest Michigan city of 9,615 residents to improve its corrosion-control formula and more strictly monitor residual disinfectants in the water.

EPA officials said they are working closely with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy but say bottled water remains necessary with high lead levels.

"No family should ever have to worry about the water coming from their tap and the Benton Harbor community is no exception," the EPA statement said. "(The) EPA is committed to ensuring that everyone has access to clean drinking water and addressing lead in drinking water.

"EPA, the petitioners, and Michigan share a strong commitment to ensuring that the people of Benton Harbor have safe and clean drinking water."

Benton Harbor has had three straight years of lead levels in the drinking water that have exceeded the state and federal action standards of 15 parts per billion. The Detroit News has reported that state environmental and city officials had been slow to deal with the crisis by not warning residents that the drinking water was unsafe and that its corrosion-control measures did not work.

"Benton Harbor’s water is still not safe to drink, and we won’t stop fighting until it is," said Rev. Edward Pinkney, a civil rights activist who led the charge to declare the water unsafe in Benton Harbor.

Rev. Ed Pinkney of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council and pastor of God's Household of Faith with cases of bottled water for the community inside his church in November. Pinkney has been sounding the alarm for years about the high levels of lead in the city's  drinking water.

Pinkney said his Benton Harbor Community Water Council group will "continue to press for fast action" to keep the drinking water free of lead contamination.

He and other environmental groups have called for the state to distribute bottled water until all the lead service lines are removed. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared in an executive order that the pipes be removed in 18 months by spring of 2023 following the petition to the EPA.

"Lead remains at high levels in many homes in our community. Since we filed the petition, we’ve learned of additional issues at the water treatment plant that threaten the water quality, including bacterial contamination that makes people sick," Pinkney said. "The bottom line for Benton Harbor is that there is a lot of work to be done, such as delivering thousands of water bottles to residents each week."

Benton Harbor has replaced 400 lead lines and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration has promised to spend millions to replace pipe.  About 3,900 lead or suspected lead lines remain to be replaced.

Nick Leonard, the executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, which was one of the petitioners, said the action bore results and the EPA has responded.

Sandford Williams unboxes the PUR Maxion water filter provided by the city of Benton Harbor in the kitchen of his home in Benton Harbor.  Lead in the water prevents residents from using the water for drinking, cooking, and hygiene.  Williams doesn't trust the water filter to reduce the lead to a safe level and prefers to use bottled water, instead.

"Our petition to the EPA rang alarm bells, leading officials at every level of government to take action to make Benton Harbor’s water safe to drink," he said. "By that measurement, the petition did what the community needed it to do to remedy the public health threat from high levels of lead in Benton Harbor’s drinking water."

EPA officials said that it responded months later because they have "had ongoing conversations with the petitioners since the petition was filed and today’s letter provides a formal report on the actions that have been taken to identify and address drinking water issues in Benton Harbor."

EPA said it did not set any "timelines" for bottled water distribution and that residents should continue to rely on bottled water for drinking, cooking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula. State officials earlier this month said bottled water will continue until all the lead pipes are removed.

The EPA in conjunction with the state department of Health and Human Services conducted a water filter study by collecting drinking water from more than 200 homes throughout November and December to assess the filters' effectiveness.

Preliminary results, EPA officials said, show the filters are keeping the lead levels down in drinking water when properly installed. Results of that study are expected this month.