One down, thousands to go: Benton Harbor’s lead lines start coming out

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BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (WOOD) — In Benton Harbor’s bid to end a water crisis, crews yanked out the first section of lead service line early Monday afternoon — a 3-foot-long poisonous pipe that had been underground for maybe a century.

It didn’t come easy. It started with a saw cutting through Ogden Avenue, then a backhoe, then hand shovels.

Then a broken water service line. That was not supposed to happen.

“Rough start; not too rough,” said Donnie Meeks, owner of the contractor that is removing the first 100 lead service lines under an federal grant.

Crews hit a water line as they begin work to remove lead service lines in Benton Harbor. (Nov. 8, 2021)

A shower sprayed passing cars before crews could cap it off.

“Well, usually, we don’t sever the line but, yeah, it happens sometimes,” Meeks said.

That, he said, is part of the problem: It’s an old system.

“We were digging on the wrong side of the main, but the main wasn’t in the location that we thought,” Meeks said.

The city pumps water from Lake Michigan to its 9,800 residents through a system that’s about 100 years old. Most of the service lines from the mains to homes are made of lead — perhaps numbering in the thousands, according to the city.

Meeks’s company got the contract, funded by part of a $5.6 million U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant, to remove the first 100 suspected lead service lines by April.

On Monday, they started at just one home on Ogden Avenue. They started there because the service line to the home already was leaking. It took several hours for contractors to reach the line.

Crews also dug by hand, sometimes up to 6 feet deep, to confirm if service lines leading to other homes were, indeed, made of lead. Most were.

“Thursday there will be three crews out,” Meeks said. “By next week, we should have four to five.

“We’re trying to be done early,” he continued. “The faster we get (the lead) out, get them (copper lines) in, the faster we get the customers cleaner water.”

The governor has vowed to replace all of Benton Harbor’s lead service lines within 18 months at a cost to the state of nearly $20 million.

Kevin Gordon watched the crew just a few doors down from the home where he and his wife spent 40 years raising a family.

“I see what they’re doing now, and if they’re coming down this way and take care of mine, I’d be blessed,” he said.

Because Benton Harbor residents have been told not to drink their water, bottled water distribution continues with several locations handing out cases of water this week:

Tuesday

  • Southwest Community Action Agency, 331 Miller Street, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Self-service)
  • Abundant Life Church of God, 693 Columbus Avenue, noon to 2 p.m.
  • Ebenezer Baptist Church, 214 E. Britain Avenue, 4 to 6 p.m.

Wednesday

  • Southwest Community Action Agency, 331 Miller Street, 3 to 6 p.m., (Water loaded into vehicles by volunteers)

Thursday

  • Ebenezer Baptist Church, 214 E. Britain Avenue, 10 a.m. to noon.
  • Brotherhood of All Nations, 1286 Monroe Street, 4 to 6 p.m.

Friday, Nov. 12

  • Southwest Community Action Agency, 331 Miller Street, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Self-service)

Saturday, Nov. 13

  • Boys & Girls Club of Benton Harbor, 600 Nate Wells Sr. Drive, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.,
  • Harbor of Hope Seventh-Day Adventist Church, 769 Pipestone Street, 4 to 6 p.m.

If you can’t get to a pickup location, call 211 to arrange delivery.

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