Benton Harbor declares state of emergency due to lead risk

Michigan

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (WOOD) — The Benton Harbor City Commission has declared a local state of emergency in response to the discovery of high levels of lead contamination in the water.

The resolution was unanimously passed during Monday night’s city commission meeting.

“This (declaration) gives the city of Benton Harbor another layer of action working with the office of the city manager, working with clergy, working with staff, working directly with state officials,” Mayor Marcus Muhammad said during a Tuesday afternoon press conference.

The resolution shares similar language to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order, expanding water bottle delivery efforts and offering free-to-low-cost lead-related services for homeowners. It also expands Muhammad’s decision powers as mayor and immediately establishes a community response team to educate and inform residents on lead issues in a door-to-door manner.

“The mayor shall work with the city commission, state department officials and agencies to expeditiously take all appropriate action to ensure residents of Benton Harbor have immediate access to free bottled water for consumption through distribution sites and drop-off delivery until further notice,” Muhammad read from the declaration.

Watch the full press conference in the player below.

RESIDENTS RELYING ON BOTTLED WATER

The 9,700 people in Benton Harbor have been advised not to drink from their taps because of lead contamination. Data from the city shows the highest lead reading from sampled homes found 889 parts per billion, more than 59 times the state limit.

Whitmer’s administration has pledged to replace every lead water line in the city in 18 months.

In the meantime, the state is trucking in bottled water each Monday and it is being handed out to residents in sets of 12 cases of 24 bottles each. On Monday, volunteers at one pick-up site handed out more than 72,000 bottles in about four hours.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of work. It’s going to take everybody coming together as a community,” volunteer Karen Shelby told News 8 Monday. “It happened. We can’t be mad. We just solve the problem. Solve the problem. Everybody work together, we can get it done. … Twelve cases at a time.”

On Tuesday, a line of cars at the same distribution location, Abundant Life Church of God on Columbus Avenue, stretched down the blocks as people anxiously waited for cases of bottled water.

“I know a guy who went to the doctor for high exposure to lead. He’s losing his teeth,” said John Woodley, a Benton Harbor resident.

City officials are expected to head to the state Legislature later this week to discuss the response.

“This Thursday, the city manager and staff will travel to Lansing, where they will be speaking before the House Oversight Committee at 10:30 (a.m.), where we’ll be a part of that discussion as it relates to clean and safe drinking water in the city of Benton Harbor,” Muhammad said.

On Tuesday morning, Whitmer visited with people in the city, hearing from residents, clergy, youths and elected leaders about their concerns.

CITY WATER CUSTOMERS SAY BILLS ARE GOING UP

In addition to lead contamination making their tap water unsafe to consume, many citizens are still being billed for water.

“Our water bill went up $46 in one month’s time. We haven’t even used it. At all,” said Woodley.

City water customers say they are still paying for the water they rarely or never use.

“It’s ridiculous. It doesn’t make sense when you ain’t using it. But if you don’t pay it, they’re going to cut it off,” said Benton Harbor resident Aguliar Hampton.

When asked why customers are still being charged, Muhammad said a revolving loan taken out by the city in 2009 is to blame.

“Some of it was forgiven under the American Recovery Act under the Obama administration,” Muhammad said. “But there’s still current payments on the record that have to be paid. So, in order not to default, we have to continue in that process.”

Help may be on the way.

Similar to those in Flint, Muhammad says city customers may soon continue to pay only for sewer usage, while their water bill would be covered by state-issued credits.

“However, on a local level, that’s not something that we can execute. We have to work with the state,” Muhammad said.

The mayor is still anticipating an answer soon as to if — and if so, when and how — homeowners looking for relief on their bills will get those credits from the state.

—News 8’s Luke Laster and Madalyn Buursma contributed to this report.

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