State officials: 90% of Benton Harbor's water service lines now lead-free

Hannah Mackay
The Detroit News

State environmental officials say more than 90% of the city's water service lines now are lead-free, roughly a year after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered a directive ordering all lines to be lead-free by 2023.

Crews have excavated 171 service lines in the last month, averaging six a day, the Michigan Department of Environmental, Great Lakes and Energy said Tuesday in a news release. About 4,000 water lines have been replaced with copper or confirmed to not contain lead, leaving 400 to do.

"It is great to hear that we are almost to the finish line,” Benton Harbor resident Sam Hudson said in a statement. “Over the last year, things have really come together and everyone, including the city, county, state of Michigan and the community found ways to work together to get us where we are now.  The work has been done expeditiously to replace the lines and the results are good for my community."

Underground water mains are uncovered and new copper water lines installed on Tuesday March 1, 2022 in Benton Harbor. Abonmarche, of Benton Harbo and Five Star Energy Systems of Big Bend, Wisconsin have begun replacement of lead water lines to many homes in Benton Harbor. Residents have been forced to use bottled water for all personal use since high lead levels were  detected in the tap water.

The effort to inspect the city's water lines and replace lead lines with copper ones began after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive directive last fall. The directive requires the city's water service lines to be 100% lead-free by 2023 and is funded by the Building Michigan Together Plan.

Lead levels in Benton Harbor's drinking water exceeded federal standards from 2018 to July 2022. City and state officials have faced criticism for their initially slow response to the public health crisis

"Our top priority here remains guaranteeing safe drinking water for every Michigander, no matter who they are or where they live," Whitmer said in a statement in November last year. "We will not rest until every community has safe drinking water and every parent feels confident to give their kid a glass of water.” 

Officials tried to treat Benton Harbor's lead lines with a corrosion chemical blend and gave residents of the majority-Black city water filters. Water quality experts say that corrosion treatment is ineffective and residents reported that they weren't given enough instruction about the water filters, which have to be installed correctly to work.

The Environmental Protection Agency continues to advise Benton Harbor residents to use bottled water for drinking, cooking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing infant formula. The state health department began offering free bottled water to Benton Harbor residents last September. 

Residents have to complete a water service line replacement agreement form for their pipes to be excavated and inspected. Over 2,700 forms have been submitted to date. 

Email: hmackay@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @hmackayDN