Benton Harbor residents sue, allege 'coverup' of city's water crisis

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Sixteen Benton Harbor residents filed a federal lawsuit this week, accusing government officials of concealing a "toxic lead emergency" in the southwest Michigan city's drinking water.

The suit in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan contends state and city leaders failed to warn residents of problems with the water running through lead service pipes "into their homes, schools, hospitals, workplaces and public places."

More:State criticized for inadequate response to Benton Harbor water crisis

"Since at least 2018, the state, its agencies, directors, the city of Benton Harbor, its mayor, and city managers and water plant manager treated the evidence that the water running through lead service lines in the city of Benton Harbor was poisoned with high levels of lead with deliberate indifference," the lawsuit said.

A lone resident of Benton Harbor, Mich., walks across Britain Street Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, near the city's water tower in Benton Harbor.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the state Department of Health and Human Services, Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad and the city's former water plant operator Michael O'Malley are among the defendants named in the new lawsuit.

Wednesday's court filing was the latest development amid increasing scrutiny of the handling of high lead levels in the city's water. Elevated levels were first detected in Benton Harbor in 2018 during routine testing, according to the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. Much of the city's water distribution system is about 100 years old.

More:Benton Harbor's water ills raise tension between Whitmer, environmentalists

On Sept. 9, state groups and city activists filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, calling for immediate action to deliver safe drinking water to Benton Harbor, a majority Black city of about 10,000 residents.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services began free bottled water delivery in late September and announced the expansion of bottled water in Benton Harbor on Oct. 6 "out of an abundance of caution." The state health department encouraged residents to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula.

Eight days later, Whitmer signed an executive directive employing what her office called an "all-hands-on-deck" approach to the situation.

Over the last two months, Whitmer's administration has emphasized steps it has taken to respond to the lead levels in Benton Harbor.

Standard notification requirements and procedures were followed in the city and there was "significant communication over the past three years," wrote Liesl Clark, director of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, in a letter to the Senate Oversight Committee on Nov. 3.

"Every Michigander deserves access to safe drinking water and every community deserves lead-free pipes," Whitmer's spokesman Bobby Leddy said Friday. "Since the first lead exceedance was detected in 2018, the state of Michigan has been on the ground in Benton Harbor working with local partners on a solution to address the aging infrastructure.

"In accordance with the state’s strict Lead and Copper Rule, the state began urging the city to immediately conduct outreach to residents and ordered the city to apply corrosion control to try to bring down the levels and stabilize the drinking water."

But The Detroit News reported last month that 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. 

Whitmer has also called for replacing all the lead pipes in the city in the next 18 months.

But the Benton Harbor residents behind the new lawsuit said there had been efforts to "engage in a coverup" by not issuing warnings about the water supply. One plaintiff, Michael Duane Brigham, 61, had been using the water coming from his tap for "all purposes" until October 2021, the lawsuit said. Brigham has medical conditions that are known to be connected with lead consumption in adults, the filing added.

Doretha Braziel, a lifelong Benton Harbor resident, said she wasn't notified prior to late October 2021 by any of the defendants the water she used was unsafe to drink. Her grandson, born on June 15, 2021, had been fed his formula with tap water until recently, according to the suit.

The suit claimed government officials didn't comply with requirements of the federal and state Safe Drinking Water Act on public notice and education. The suit sought the immediate replacement of lead service lines, the establishment of a medical monitoring process, the appointment of a monitor to oversee the water operations of Benton Harbor and compensatory and punitive damages.