Michigan Senate seeks trove of records on Benton Harbor water crisis

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The chairman of the Michigan Senate Oversight Committee has asked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration to produce a lengthy list of documents on its handling of elevated lead levels in Benton Harbor's drinking water.

The request for records from Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) came Monday, according to a letter obtained by The Detroit News. It's an initial signal the GOP-controlled Legislature plans to probe the water crisis in the southwest Michigan city of about 10,000 residents.

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan

McBroom is seeking correspondence among officials on the use of corrosion controls in Benton Harbor's water, on testing of the city's water and on the elevated lead levels. The chairman is targeting communications that occurred between Jan. 1, 2019, when Whitmer, a Democrat, took office, and Oct. 15, 2021.

"The documents requested herein will help us learn and understand how the department established, implemented and executed policies and initiatives to address the water crisis in Benton Harbor over the past three years," said McBroom's letter to Liesl Clark, director of the environmental department.

"One of the department’s vital responsibilities is to ensure the safety and well-being of Michigan’s environment and the residents that reside in it, and a thorough review of the department’s response to this tragedy is necessary and will help strengthen and preserve the department’s effectiveness moving forward," the letter added.

Hugh McDiarmid Jr., spokesman for EGLE, confirmed the department had received the message and said it intended to provide the Senate Oversight Committee with the requested information.

"EGLE looks forward to showing our work regarding the activities that the Committee is requesting, including how Benton Harbor officials and residents were informed of drinking water lead exceedances," McDiarmid said. "EGLE will also illustrate the consistent and ongoing technical support the state continues to extend the city and its public water supply to establish effective corrosion control, reduce lead levels in drinking water and invest in improving their water system’s infrastructure."

On Oct. 6, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced the availability of bottled water was being expanded in Benton Harbor "out of an abundance of caution." The press release encouraged residents to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula.

"Protecting the health and safety of Benton Harbor residents is a top priority," Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, said on Oct. 6. "We’ve listened to the community’s concerns and out of an abundance of caution, we are recommending that residents use bottled water for cooking, drinking and brushing teeth."

Eight days later, Whitmer signed an executive directive implementing what her office called an "all-hands-on-deck" approach to the situation in Benton Harbor. The governor set a goal of replacing 100% of the lead service lines in the city within 18 months.

Elevated lead levels were first detected in Benton Harbor in 2018 during routine testing, according to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. Much of the city's water distribution system is about 100 years old.

State and city officials treated Benton Harbor's drinking water with a corrosion chemical blend that failed to control harmful levels of lead for more than two years and rejected federal requirements to fully study its effectiveness, The Detroit News reported last week.

McBroom cited the reporting in his letter on Monday, calling it "quite unsettling."

The chairman asked the department to provide the requested documents and information within 10 days. He also noted the Senate Oversight Committee has the ability to subpoena forecords.

"I make these requests in good faith and share the common goal of a cooperative and productive exchange of information," McBroom wrote. "I trust there will be no issue complying with these requests and look forward to reviewing the responsive documents and information."

A joint select committee within the state Legislature studied the Flint water crisis during former Gov. Rick Snyder's administration, releasing a report in October 2016.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Leonard Fleming contributed.