Michigan to pay Benton Harbor residents for distributing water

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan will begin paying Benton Harbor residents who work at state-supported bottled water distribution sites to "ensure the continued success" of the efforts, according to a Thursday press release.

The announcement from the state Department of Health and Human Services said the individuals will be called "community ambassadors," will earn $15 per hour and must be approved by the organization they volunteer with.

A forklift driver hauls a pallet of bottled water to hand out to residents of Benton Harbor on Oct. 7, 2021 from the Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on Friday warned residents in Benton Harbor and surrounding communities to be on the lookout for bottled water price gouging amid the city's water crisis.

"Benton Harbor residents have stepped up to help one another as the state provides free bottled water to the city to reduce the risk of exposure to lead in their drinking water," said Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state health department. "Ensuring that residents are compensated for their time is a priority for the state and will help ensure a sustainable, long-term solution and is the right thing to do."

Some advocates who have volunteered to pass out water in Benton Harbor, a southwest Michigan city with about 10,000 residents, had been pressing state officials to pay city residents who help.

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. On Sept. 9, a group of organizations filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asking the EPA to provide an immediate source of safe drinking water in schools and child care facilities in Benton Harbor, along with other actions.

A month later on Oct. 6, the 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.

On Oct. 14, 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.

Under the new initiative, individuals who want to serve as "community ambassadors" are recommend to connect with an established distribution site, according to the department of health.

The health department and volunteers have provided more than 100,000 cases of free bottled water at community distribution sites and deliveries to residents who are homebound or lack access to transportation, Thursday's press release said.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Leonard Fleming contributed.