Efforts to replace lead pipes in one Michigan city are ramping up following years of alleged neglect.
Meeks Contracting began replacing 100 of Benton Harbor, Mich.’s estimated 6,000 lead service lines on Nov. 8, and the city plans to go out to bid in December to replace the rest of the lead pipes starting in the spring of 2022.
The city’s lead pipes date back 120 years, and the installation of new lead pipes was outlawed in 1988. Michigan’s Lead and Copper Rule requires communities to replace 5% of their lead service lines each year, though state records show Benton Harbor has likely fallen short of that number, replacing 17 lines in 2019 and 89 in 2020, though its exact number of lead service lines remains unknown.
In October, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) committed to fund the fast-tracked replacement of all Benton Harbor’s lead service lines within 18 months. The work is estimated to run $30 million, and the Environmental Protection Agency awarded a $5.6-million grant to Benton Harbor earlier this year to pay for some of the work. In the meantime, the state is providing free bottled water for residents.
“I cannot imagine the stress that moms and dads in Benton Harbor are under as they emerge from a pandemic, work hard to put food on the table, pay the bills and face a threat to the health of their children,” Whitmer said at the time.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) released thousands of pages of documents related to Benton Harbor’s drinking water lead levels on Nov. 3 following questions about why officials didn’t act on the issue sooner. The records show that the lead 90th percentile value — the standard meaning 90% of samples were at or below a certain number — exceeded the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion at least as early as 2018, when the lead level was 22 ppb for the testing period from 2016-2018. Tests in 2019, 2020 and 2021 continued to show 90th percentile values past 15 ppb, reaching as high as 32 ppb.
However, while the situation in the city is urgent, it doesn't compare to the Flint water crisis, where samples tested as high as13,200 ppb.
Heading to Court
City and state officials are now also facing a lawsuit accusing them of negligence and breaking both federal and state drinking water laws. The lawsuit, which was filed in a U.S. district court in Michigan on Nov. 10, seeks class action status on behalf of Benton Harbor’s 10,000 residents, nearly 85% of whom are African-American, according to the most recent census estimate.
The complaint alleges residents didn’t learn of the lead problem until Whitmer’s Oct. 14 announcement, meaning they’d unknowingly been using the water to drink, cook and brush their teeth for three years with elevated amounts of lead.
After 2018 testing results showed actionable lead levels, officials “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 complaint states.
Neither Benton Harbor nor EGLE officials responded to inquiries from ENR. But in a Nov. 3 letter to State Sen. Ed McBroom (R), EGLE Director Liesl Eichler Clark acknowledged questions around the agency’s handling of Benton Harbor’s water and wrote that a review of its responses would help the agency’s effectiveness in the future.
“Public confidence in our oversight and enforcement underpins public confidence in the safety of community drinking water across the state, which is vital to protecting public health, our environment, and quality of life,” she wrote.
One of the plaintiffs, Doretha Braziel, had her home’s water tested this year, which revealed a lead level of 886 ppb, according to the complaint. Other plaintiffs, Rebecca and Stacey Branscumb, had their water tested and found a lead level of 496 ppb. They believe the water killed their pet dog.
Another plaintiff, Emma Kinnard, has lived in her home since 1976 but says she stopped using her home’s water two years ago because of the smell and cloudiness. She’s suffering from ongoing medical conditions she believes are connected to the lead.
“During the more-than-three-year period, [officials] knew that the high lead levels exceeded the state and national lead and copper rule, and both kept this toxic lead emergency from Benton Harbor residents, and falsely assured the residents that the water was safe for all uses,” the complaint states.
In her letter, Clark wrote that multiple entities tried to inform Benton Harbor residents about the water lead levels, but added that there should be improvements to the government’s communications approach since many residents were apparently not reached.
The EPA also ordered Benton Harbor to better notify residents about lead levels on Nov. 2, as well as to make repairs to the city’s water treatment plant, following an inspection of the facility in September.
Emails released among the trove of EGLE documents show that city managers have struggled to keep up with its water issues. In one, the city’s former water plant superintendent complained to state workers about dealing with inexperienced staff, equipment not working as expected and extensive record-keeping.
“I have no time for this,” he wrote, prompting an offer from EGLE officials to assist with sampling, record keeping and other efforts.
While Clark acknowledged in her letter that Benton Harbor’s situation is “particularly urgent,” it doesn’t compare to the water crisis in Flint, Mich., says Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who was instrumental in exposing the Flint situation in 2015. As ENR previously reported, Edwards got involved with Flint after a resident contacted him and a sample he took showed a lead level of 13,200 ppb.
“The Flint water crisis was first and foremost a betrayal of the public trust,” Edwards says. “It was a failure of government at all levels. That hasn’t happened at Benton Harbor. The law has been followed. To my knowledge, no one has lied about the situation. It’s a completely routine problem with lead in water, it was discovered and is being dealt with. It’s elevated in the public consciousness because of the publicity of Flint and higher expectations in its aftermath in how you can deal with these problems.”
Benton Harbor isn’t the only community dealing with lead pipes that need to be replaced. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which President Joe Biden signed on Nov. 15, includes $15 billion for lead service line replacements.
“This will have a tremendous impact on reducing the danger of these lead pipes and starting to get them replaced, which in the aftermath of Flint, just has to happen,” Edwards says.