Insider: Benton Harbor activist says filing 'forced' Whitmer officials into action

A vocal Benton Harbor activist says Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration has been "deceiving" in explaining what inspired expanded efforts to combat the southwest Michigan city's water crisis in recent weeks.

The Rev. Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, said the true cause of the state's actions was an emergency petition filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Sept. 9. The filing asked the EPA to provide an immediate source of safe drinking water in schools and child care facilities in Benton Harbor.

"If we had not filed that petition, it would have been three, four more years in the Black city of Benton Harbor with nothing being done," Pinkney said during a taping of WKAR's "Off The Record" television show.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer meets with residents and local leaders in Benton Harbor on Oct. 19, 2021.

The filing with the EPA "forced" the Whitmer administration's hands, Pinkney said.

In the weeks following the Sept. 9 petition, the state expanded access to bottled water in Benton Harbor, a city whose drinking water has been found to have elevated lead levels for three years.

In an Oct. 6 statement, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said the measures were being taken "out of an abundance of caution" and Benton Harbor residents were encouraged to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula.

During a Michigan House Oversight Committee hearing on Thursday, Eric Oswald, director of the water division within the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, suggested an issue with lead nanoparticles bypassing filters in New Jersey spurred the heightened sense of caution about the situation in Benton Harbor.

"Until we can validate that the filters are absolutely effective, we want to make sure we're cautious there," Oswald told lawmakers.

But Pinkney said it was the petition that "got the ball rolling." He noted that Whitmer's office announced a clean water initiative that included $20 million in proposed funding to remove lead service lines in Benton Harbor on Sept. 8, a day before the petition was filed. Someone who knew about the petition had "leaked" information about it to Whitmer's team, Pinkney said.

"She got a heads-up from someone," he said.

Pinkney made the comment a day before Whitmer skipped a scheduled campaign stop in Virginia Saturday morning after criticism from Republicans, who argued she should be focused on the water crisis in Benton Harbor. Whitmer's attendance was only tentative at the event in Arlington County ahead of Virginia's Nov. 2 gubernatorial election, said Maeve Coyle, communications director for Whitmer's campaign. 

Moments of silence

Most of the Michigan delegation gathered Tuesday evening on the floor of the U.S. House to honor the memories of two former lawmakers who died the same week — former Reps. Dale Kildee of Flint and Dan Benishek of Crystal Falls. 

They led the chamber in a moment of silence for each departed colleague. Kildee served 36 years in the House, retiring in 2013, and Benishek served six, retiring in 2017.

"He believed this place, this Congress and our government, could be a force for good," said Kildee's nephew, Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township.

"I think his greatest contribution was that he served here so long and left here with so many friends because he served here with dignity, with respect for everyone — regardless of their position or their point of view. I hope we can remember him for that."

Watch::Michigan delegation leads moments of silence for Kildee, Benishek

Benishek's successor, Rep. Jack Bergman of Watersmeet, gave a tribute to "Dr. Dan," noting he loved to tell stories of his off-grid cabin where he ate off the land and what he had hunted. 

"Dr Dan's passing is a significant loss to our state. Those of us who call Michigan home have each benefited from his life and service, and are grateful for the impacts he made. He did make a difference. He loved the outdoors, like no one, you wouldn't believe," Bergman said. "He was a man truly of the Upper Peninsula." 

The Michigan delegation, plus Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, pays tribute to former Reps. Dale Kildee of Flint and Dan Benishek of Crystal Falls who both died this month.

Nessel takes dig at Trudeau 

Attorney General Dana Nessel took to Twitter Tuesday to express her displeasure with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his administration’s stance on the future of Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline. 

In response to a tweet that tagged the Plymouth Democrat and Canadian leader, Nessel asked that she not be included in future tweets with Trudeau. 

“We’re not on speaking terms right now and I’ve officially removed him from my list of ‘Men I would date if I wasn’t married and gay.’ You’re welcome @GavinNewsome,” Nessel wrote, followed by a second tweet containing the hashtag “shutdownline5”.

The social media message comes after Canada earlier this month formally invoked treaty negotiations with the United States over Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plans to shutter the line. Canada has maintained such action would violate a 1977 treaty that prevents either country from interfering in transit pipelines that travel through both countries.  

A lawyer for the government of Canada notified the court of its treaty invocation Oct. 4 and asked the judge to push pause on the case while negotiations ensue. The state of Michigan and Enbridge followed shortly thereafter with their own letters to the court for and against that pause. 

U.S. District Judge Janet Neff chided the whole lot of them last week, striking the letters from the record on the basis that requests to the court should be in the form of motions or official briefs.