Federal regulators issued an order Nov. 2 directing Benton Harbor, Mich., which has high levels of lead in its tap water, to make filter repairs at its water treatment plant and take other action after an inspection revealed broken equipment and other “areas of concern.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order under the Safe Drinking Water Act followed an inspection in September of city facilities. The order sets out the process for its water system to meet protections for residents from lead exposure.
The water plant was built in the 1950s and renovated in 2012. The EPA order requires the plant filter repairs to start within 15 days.
City officials didn’t immediately respond to inquiries from ENR after normal business hours.
Benton Harbor’s lead pipes are not a new problem. The city, with a population of about 9,800 near southern Lake Michigan, says some of the water pipes are 120 years old. It banned the installation of new lead service lines in 1988. The state has been providing free bottled water for residents to drink.
EPA previously awarded Benton Harbor a $5.56-million grant under the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act to replace lead service lines. The city recently signed a contract with Meeks Contracting for the work, with line replacement set to start on Nov. 8 and finish by April 2022.
So far, 160 lead water service lines have been replaced, the city says. There are still more than 2,200 utility-owned lead lines and 2,300 customer-owned lines to be replaced.
The EPA order also requires the city to better warn residents about lead levels in water, improve the application of chemicals such as chlorine for disinfection and orthophosphate for corrosion control, improve monitoring for residual disinfectants and use an independent third-party to study long-term system operation and maintenance alternatives.
“Exposure to lead in children can cause irreversible and life-long health effects, including decreasing IQ, focus and academic achievement,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “The water infrastructure in Benton Harbor, like many cities across the country, needs upgrades and investments to build resiliency and protect people from lead.”
Cyndi Roper, Michigan senior policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environment-focused nonprofit that has joined other groups in petitioning EPA to tackle Benton Harbor water problems, said in a statement that “decades of disinvestment” have left the city with its inadequate water system. “EPA’s order is exactly what is needed to begin addressing Benton Harbor’s long-term water problems; high lead levels are at the top of a very long list of violations that need immediate attention,” she said.