House hearing focuses on timeline of Benton Harbor lead contamination

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LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Leaders from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and officials from the city of Benton Harbor testified before a state House committee hearing Thursday regarding drinking water contaminated with lead.

As he called the meeting to order, committee chair Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, acknowledged that the purpose was to determine how the city of Benton Harbor got to the critical point it is at now and how similar problems could be prevented in the future.

The Benton Harbor City Commission on Monday declared a local state of emergency in response to the high lead levels in drinking water, though officials say they have been dealing with the problem for several years. Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said he has been attempting to alert state authorities about the urgency of the issue since 2019.

“In 2019, I think it was a megaphone, but now I’m here to come stand on the Capitol and say, ‘Help Benton Harbor,'” Muhammad told News 8 Thursday. “I feel like we lost a whole year due to COVID and I feel like the political environment in Lansing became toxic with the protests and the guns and a community like Benton Harbor got lost in translation.”

Liesl Clark, the director of EGLE, spoke about Benton Harbor’s history and the struggles the majority Black city is now tasked with fixing, including replacing nearly 100-year-old lead service lines that are leaching lead particles into water.

The director of the Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division of EGLE, Eric Oswald, said his unit was first made aware of elevated lead levels in Benton Harbor’s water in 2018 during a routine sanitary survey.

The department says soon after, in 2019, it began working with the city to apply a corrosion treatment, which involves injecting a chemical agent into the water that coats lead pipes to prevent additional lead from leaching into the water. EGLE says despite efforts over the last three years, at every six-month check, there was little to no improvement.

“What we’ve noticed though in the last monitoring period is that the first liter sample that we take in the homes’ plumbing has continued to be elevated. So we’re concerned about lead and old brass fixtures in people’s homes,” Oswald said.

As EGLE worked on solutions in both the short and long term, the state has been providing Benton Harbor residents with bottled water and filters.

State legislators said they were only recently notified how dire the situation was.

“This is my biggest problem I’m seeing. I understand in 2018 you get the first report, the levels are high. In most communities where you have this happen, you do a corrosion treatment program and they’re back to acceptable levels and so that’s what you tried. It didn’t work. The system’s old, there’s some issues there,” Rep. Johnson said. “We go several reporting periods and there’s still no change and now in the last 30 days, all of a sudden it feels like we’re going 0 to 100 miles an hour here; from ‘we’re monitoring’ to ‘holy cow! you can’t drink this water.’ What changed in the last 30 days?”

EGLE said the level of urgency increased due to concerns that the filters given to homeowners were not as efficient as needed in preventing lead exposure. The department is working to test the filters efficacy and hope to get tap water back up to safety standards in the coming weeks. In the interim, EGLE Director Clark said the water is not safe for drinking and residents should consume bottled water for the time being.

“I’m asking you as leaders of our state to look at this as if it were your community, if it was your home,” said Bishop James Atterberry of Benton Harbor, who also spoke in front of the committee. “I know that many people will say that Benton Harbor neglected itself. We hear that all the time in poor communities and I’m tired of listening to that. We are all human beings.”

The state has already given the city $10 million to begin the process of replacing lead service lines. The governor’s office set an aggressive goal of replacing all such lines in the city in 18 months. The city says it needs at least $11.4 million more to meet that goal.

Lawmakers also pointed out that several other cities in Michigan are dealing with water issues including Kalamazoo, Ionia and Muskegon Heights.

Clark says the only long-term solution is to replace all lead service lines. EGLE estimated statewide costs of $2 billion.

WATER MAIN BREAK

Amid the lead contamination, crews worked to repair a main break that impacted the majority of the city’s water system, forcing at least six Benton Harbor area schools to close. In a tweet Thursday morning, Muhammad said the busted pipe is 89 years old “and is taking longer than expected to address.”

Water service has since been restored, the Herald-Palladium reports.

(Crews in Benton Harbor work to fix a water main that burst — leaving the city completely without water — on Oct. 20, 2021. )

The county health department says residents can pick up free bottled water Thursday from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. at the Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency, located at 331 Miller Street, and at Benton Harbor High School, located at 870 Colfax Avenue. There will also be water trucks for residents to use to fill up their own containers for things like washing and flushing toilets.

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