EPA says filters limit lead in Benton Harbor drinking water; critics skeptical

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday released a study that it said shows that when filters are properly used in Benton Harbor they reduce the amount of lead in the city's drinking water which has exceeded federal lead limits for three years.

In the final two months of 2021, EPA officials said its scientists tested unfiltered and filtered water at about 200 locations in the southwest Michigan city and concluded that "when installed, maintained, and used properly, filters are effective at reducing lead in drinking water."

The samples, EPA officials said, were collected from all filter brands that the Berrien County Health Department gave out to residents in the city of 9,100 people.

Sandford Williams unboxes the PUR Maxion water filter provided by the city of Benton Harbor in the kitchen of his home in Benton Harbor on Jan. 27, 2022. The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday released a study that it said shows that when filters are properly used they reduce the amount of lead in the city's drinking water

"In the unfiltered water samples, the lead concentrations were detected up to 77 parts per billion," the study stated. "After the water was run through properly installed and operated filters, all samples had lead results below 5 parts per billion, the level that the filters were certified to reduce lead below. Most filtered water had no reportable lead in the samples (the detection limit for lead is 0.5 ppb). This means that filters, when properly installed and used, remove lead from drinking water as expected."

But the EPA said it discovered that residents need better information to install and operate filters properly. The EPA said it will continue to back state and city officials to better "disseminate information about the safe and effective use of filters."

The anticipated study and the results came after weeks of discussions by EPA officials and months after coming under fire by environmental groups and activists for not intervening sooner in the Benton Harbor lead crisis to ensure the city had safe drinking water.

But Rev. Edward Pinkney, a civil rights activist who has been critical of the response of the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to Benton Harbor's crisis, said he remains skeptical because he needs to see more evidence. 

Bacteria can build up inside the filters, he said, and can cause problems as well as lead.

"We need to see more data to say that they are safe even from the lead," Pinkney said. "We have asked for more. They have not provided it, and I'm a little concerned. I think what they are trying to do is rush this through so people can say that the water in Benton Harbor is now safe with a water filter."

Although the state had passed out water filters, many of the residents didn't know how to properly install them on their faucets or replace the cartridges, said Pinkney, who leads the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, a point now acknowledged by the EPA.

Debra Shore, the EPA Region 5 administrator, said in a statement that "no family should ever have to worry about the quality of water coming from their tap" and that the community in Benton Harbor "is no exception."

"The information collected in Benton Harbor expands our existing knowledge that filters are effective at removing lead, affirming our confidence in their use nationwide," she said. "However, using a water filter addresses the symptom and not the cause of the problem, which is why EPA is committed to President Biden’s goal of removing 100% of lead pipes, the primary source of lead in drinking water across the country."

EPA researchers said they focused on evaluating faucet and pitcher filters to make sure they were reducing lead as well as a sequential study to determine the sources of lead within the plumbing, from the tap, throughout the home and to the service line. Another aspect was a particle study to determine the size and type of small particles in drinking water.

Elin Betanzo, a Metro Detroit-based water quality expert and former EPA official who helped expose the Flint water crisis, said while she is "encouraged" to see "that filters are effective for reducing lead," Benton Harbor is dealing with more than "a lead problem."

"EPA's unilateral administrative order raised many concerns about ongoing Safe Drinking Water Act violations and microbial risks in Benton Harbor's water," Betanzo said. "EGLE and EPA need to share water quality data demonstrating that Benton Harbor's water is safe from microbial contamination before pivoting to filters in Benton Harbor."

Since lead contamination was originally discovered in 2018, Benton Harbor has continuously shown high levels of lead in drinking water well above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion in every sampling period — until the last reporting period in late 2021.

The lead exceedances prompted more than 20 environmental and civil rights groups to file an emergency petition more than 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.

Benton Harbor, with promised funding from the state and federal government and promises from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, plans to replace every lead service line by Spring 2023 in the city to the tune of $32 million. There are an estimated 3,900 lines left to replace, city officials said.