Activists, expert question whether Benton Harbor is preventing bacteria contamination

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The drinking water in Benton Harbor is still unsafe and state and federal officials have not reassured residents that the water is being properly treated to control bacteria contamination, environmentalists and civil rights activists said Monday.

The groups that petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency last year to force state and city officials to make the drinking water safe said federal and Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy officials have not been responsive to the groups or residents in recent months with evidence that their measures are working.

Federal and state officials have said water filters and other measures at the water treatment plant are working. But the petitioners who held a Monday Zoom news conference said they have "serious concerns" about the overall water quality in Benton Harbor. They are demanding that the Environmental Protection Agency and EGLE stop encouraging the use of water filters until the issue of bacteria contamination is dealt with.

Environmental activists and a water quality expert said they need better proof that the city of Benton Harbor is preventing bacteria contamination of the drinking water at the city's Water Filtration Plant, seen here in October 2021.

"Filters are great and necessary for reducing lead exposure when there are no issues at the water treatment plant; however, these filters are only certified to reduce lead, not microbial contaminants," said Elin Betanzo, a Metro Detroit-based water quality expert and former EPA official who helped expose the Flint water crisis and one of the petitioners. "When microbial contaminants are present, the carbon filters can allow them to grow and increase the risk of exposure."

Betanzo said EGLE, EPA and Benton Harbor officials "have not provided enough information for those outside the treatment plant to substantiate whether Benton Harbor is meeting their minimum treatment requirements under the surface water treatment rules." A required amount of disinfectant chlorine has to be in contact with the water for a minimum amount of time to inactivate organisms.

"This is a big deal. Residents in Benton Harbor need better information about whether the water treatment plant is meeting their minimum requirements and given the years of dismissing the lead contamination in Benton Harbor, transparency is essential for moving forward," Betanzo said.

The petitioners sent a letter to officials from the EPA and ELGE "expressing our concern about the extensive violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act" to limit bacteria contamination and to be transparent with Benton Harbor residents with public notices, said Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center which helped file the petition.

"Benton Harbor residents deserve better," he said. "They have a right to know about the longstanding and ongoing violations of Safe Drinking Water Act regulations at their water treatment plant and they deserve clear and honest answers from government to simple question on whether their water is safe to drink and what they should do to protect themselves." 

State environmental officials defended the actions taken in Benton Harbor and the water quality.

"Benton Harbor consistently monitors for bacteria monthly at multiple locations throughout the water system and has reviewed the data, as well as shared all available monitoring data with U.S. EPA in light of concerns raised by petitioners," EGLE spokesman Scott Dean said in a Monday statement. "U.S. EPA supports EGLE’s assessment that water quality parameters for Benton Harbor meet Safe Drinking Water standards."

Benton Harbor has only had one detection for total coliform in Benton Harbor since 2018, and it wasn't verified in follow-up sampling, Dean said. "A single detection of coliform over a several year period would not be considered a sign of a chronic or systemic problem for any water supply," he said.

An inspection flagged a secondary point of chlorination that represents 10% of the water plant's total chlorination treatment and is concerning the petitioners, Dean said. EGLE is working with the city to ensure the process is changed to calculate chlorine treatment accurately throughout the process, "and EGLE is confident there has been adequate disinfection for treated water," he said.

Last month, the EPA released an inspection that found problems with Benton Harbor's troubled water system but none that affects drinking water safety. It identified four compliance issues that city officials told the EPA they will address, according to the report. 

The inspection was part of an onsite review to evaluate the adequacy of the public water supply, its sources and operations, and the distribution of safe drinking water.

The EPA was petitioned by these environmental groups last year to declare Benton Harbor's drinking water unsafe after three straight years of lead amounts that exceeded the federal action level. The local groups also asked the EPA to hold EGLE accountable for not warning residents sooner that the water was unsafe to drink.

An EPA study released in March stated that when filters are properly used in Benton Harbor they reduce the amount of lead in the city's drinking water but environmentalists then expressed concerns then about microbial contamination that put residents at risk.

Leonard said rebuilding trust in the drinking water in Benton Harbor "is going to require all levels of government to be transparent and honest with residents about the quality and safety of their drinking water."

Elin Betanzo, 45, of Beverley Hills, is seen inside her home office holding a lead pipe.

That trust, said Rev. Edward Pinkney, is gone. Pinkney, a Benton Harbor activist who has heavily criticized the response of the city and state, said residents don't trust the federal or state government because they have not been transparent with proof that their measures are working 

"At this time they really don't trust what is being said," said Pinkney, who leads the Benton Harbor Community Water Council that has been giving out bottled water to residents. "We are not against filters. We just want to make sure that the water plant is in compliance."

The Office of Inspector General for the EPA launched an audit in February into the federal agency's response to the lead crisis in Benton Harbor to determine if EPA officials acted fast enough to address it. The OIG is an agency within the EPA that has independent investigatory powers.

The EPA recommended in February that state officials continue to keep Benton Harbor residents on bottled water as it continues to remove all lead service lines in the city. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she wants to the pipe removal finished by spring 2023.