Tuesday, October 19, 2021

More Lead-Tainted Water in Michigan Draws Attention to Nation’s Aging Pipes

The crises in Benton Harbor and Flint expose broader failures as a congressional push to address the country’s troubled water system stalls.

In Benton Harbor, state officials said Thursday that they would continue distributing free bottled water.


Sebastian Hidalgo for The New York Times

By Mitch Smith

Oct. 16, 2021

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — During the three years that officials have known about dangerous amounts of lead flowing from faucets in Benton Harbor, Mich., they have sent out notices, distributed filters and tried to improve water treatment. But the problems persisted, and some residents said they never heard about the risks of the toxic water coming from their taps.

Now, in scenes reminiscent of the water crisis in Flint, Mich., state officials have told Benton Harbor residents not to drink, cook or brush their teeth with tap water. Elected officials came to town Thursday promising help. And so many cars have turned out for bottled water giveaways that traffic has been snarled, a rarity in a place with 9,100 residents.

“It’s horrible to watch, to see my city like this,” Rosetta Valentine, 63, said as she directed traffic at a water distribution site where some people lined up nearly an hour before the event started.

Residents of Benton Harbor see parallels between their plight and the water crisis that unfolded less than three hours up the highway in Flint, also a majority-Black city, where a change in the water source in 2014 led to residents drinking contaminated water despite repeated assurances that it was safe. In Benton Harbor, where thousands of homes are connected to the water system by lead pipes, efforts to bring down problematic lead readings by using corrosion controls have so far failed, and officials have recently grown concerned that lead-removing filters given to residents since 2019 might not work.

The problems in Benton Harbor and Flint are extreme examples of a broader, national failure of water infrastructure that experts say requires massive and immediate investment to solve. Across the country, in cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh and Clarksburg, W.Va., Americans are drinking dangerous quantities of brain-damaging lead as agencies struggle to modernize water treatment plants and launch efforts to replace the lead service lines that connect buildings to the water system. Health officials say there is no safe level of lead exposure.

Full story and photos:


Thursday, October 14, 2021

Watch Rev. Pinkney's interview on PBS News Hour

Benton Harbor’s water has had excess lead for years. Residents are only now receiving help.

Click to watch. 


Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Michigan tells majority-Black city not to drink tap water amid lead crisis

...residents and their advocates say that the five-year timetable proposed by Whitmer is too long, and have been pushing for an accelerated pace, citing the speed with which the far-larger city of Newark, New Jersey, has moved to replace its lead pipes; since early 2019, it has removed more than 20,000 service lines. Pinkney has called for the Benton Harbor lines to be replaced in one to two years. “We can’t wait no longer,” Pinkney said.

But only about 100 are slated to be removed by next spring. That means residents will probably have to rely on stopgap measures for the foreseeable future, unless something changes.

“Just think about if your children were living in Benton Harbor – would you allow this?” Pinkney said. “Look at Benton Harbor, and do the right thing.”

Full story:


Tuesday, September 21, 2021

A Black town’s water is more poisoned than Flint’s. In a white town nearby, it’s clean

Activists in Benton Harbor say it’s been an uphill battle getting the city, county and state to take action

Bobbie Clay first realized something was wrong a few years ago.

The water at her Benton Harbor, Michigan, home had started coming out of the tap looking “bubbly and whitish”. When she filled a glass with it, she could see matter floating around inside. “I became very concerned,” she recalled in a recent interview.

She wasn’t alone. For years, residents of this small, struggling city in south-west Michigan had been having similar problems. When Carmela Patton turned on her sink to make coffee, the water came out brown. When Emma Kinnard ran hers, it came out the color of tea and “sizzling like Alka-Seltzer”. Rasta Smith said his water looked normal, but had a “horrible” taste and a smell that reminded him of rotting sewage. “It’s bad, man,” he said. “It’s real bad.”

Some immediately began buying bottled water and encouraging friends and family to do the same. Others would continue to use the tap water for years and, in many cases, still do. When residents raised questions and concerns, they said, officials in the city and county were unresponsive.

Finally, in 2018, they found out what was going on: tap water samples tested that summer revealed lead levels of 22 parts per billion – well over the federal lead action level of 15 parts per billion and higher, even, than the 20 parts per billion nearby Flint averaged at the height of the crisis that made that city a national symbol of environmental injustice.

Continue reading:


Saturday, September 18, 2021

Lead In The Water Will Kill you. Benton Harbor need your help to buy bottle water for the community.

What is Lead .... It is a chemical element symbol, symbol Pb, and atomic number 82 on the periodic table. It is heavy metal that is denser than most, with a low melting point and silvery with a bluish tinge in a color that tarnishes to a dull gray. How can Lead affect you?... Exposure to high level of lead can cause the body to develop Anemia, weakness, Kidney and brain damage among other ailments. The higher the Lead level is the worse the effect will be and can cause Death! Did you know ? Lead can cross the placental barrier (transfer from mother to baby in the womb and damage the baby nervous system. What Happen When Lead Enter The Body....... It is distributed throughout organs such as the brain, Kidneys liver, and bones. It is also stored in the teeth, where it can accumulate overtime and remobilized into the blood and can expose a fetus during pregnancy and result in miscarrige and birth defects. How Poisonous is Lead ? It is highly poisonous , as it affects almost every organ in the body, the nervous system is the most affected, and Lead toxicity has the most impact on children. Did You Know ? There are food that is high in Lead, such as imported candies or food from countries such as Mexico that contain dried chili or tamarind, pottery containers, and chapulines (dried grasshoppers) How long do Lead Stay in the body..... ? Once in the body lead travels through the blood to the soft tissue and the half-life of lead varies from 1.5 months to 25-30 years in the bones. Benton Harbor need your help for three years the city has had lead to high to drink as high as 889 parts per billion and the action level is 15ppb.We need bottle water as soon as possible. donate today.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Sixth straight lead exceedance prompts calls for speedier Benton Harbor pipe fixes

Leonard N. Fleming The Detroit News

Benton Harbor's troubled water system has exceeded Michigan's lead action levels six straight times in the last three years, prompting residents to pressure city and state officials to speed efforts to replace the lead pipes they contend are the main culprit.

The southwest Michigan city issued a public advisory this month noting it found more than 10% of recent water samples from 78 homes exceeded the action level of 15 parts per billion for lead, resulting in an average reading of 24 parts per billion.

Benton Harbor, located off Lake Michigan and adjacent to the wealthier St. Joseph, has had lead-in-water results since 2018 that have exceeded state limits and are considered dangerous to the public's health.

The city's every-six-month testing was triggered by those initial elevated levels.

Benton Harbor's six consecutive lead action level exceedances are "more than any other community in Michigan," in recent memory, said Elin Betanzo, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official and water quality engineer who helped uncover the lead-tainted water crisis in Flint.

"The data collected in Benton Harbor over the past four years show concerning lead levels throughout this community where half the service connections or more may be made of lead," said Betanzo, who has a consulting firm called Safe Water Engineering in Oakland County. "That's four years of residents at risk of consuming a potent neurotoxin every single day in every glass of water, accumulating lead in their bodies and the health effects that come with that exposure."

The state's Lead and Copper Rule requires that cities with lead service lines be tested annually, and if levels exceed limits, it triggers six-month sampling.

City engineers, who have said 170 lead lines have been replaced since 2019 with borrowed state funds, anticipate that by 2024, the city could replace an additional 900 or so pipes with $5.6 million in federal funds the city received in June. They estimate there are close to 2,390 lead pipes in the city, meaning replacement plans would fall short of the city's needs.

But the city should replace large numbers of pipes and do it faster, residents said this past week, since even low levels of lead in children can lower academic achievement, decrease hearing, harm kidney function and create more problems with behavior and attention-related disorders. Lead exposure also can harm adults.

"The lead levels here are outrageous, and it seems like nobody really wants to talk about it," said the Rev. Edward Pinkney, a civil rights activist who has been critical of city and Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy officials. "To me, they don't take the lead levels seriously."

Although the state has passed out water filters, many of the residents didn't know how to properly install them on their faucets or replace the cartridges, said Pinkney, who leads the Benton Harbor Community Water Council.

State officials have said it's unclear why elevated levels of lead began in Benton Harbor with the 2018 monitoring period and not earlier, but it likely is due to a change in sampling protocols and locations by the city.

Michigan's environmental regulators created an outreach task force this spring to work to identify and replace lead lines and provide the public with regular updates. The state of Michigan has mandated communities replace all lead service lines by 2041.

For Pinkney and others in Benton Harbor, the 20-year period to replace the lead pipes "in a city that is about four miles" long "doesn't make any sense."

Michigan's mandate requires municipalities to replace 5% of their lead service lines every year. The rule also requires municipalities with lead exceedances, such as Benton Harbor, to increase that rate to 7% unless they can reduce the lead levels through treatment, state officials said.

"They should be able to finish every home here with pipes from the house to the street in five years easily," Pinkney said. "This is not Detroit. This is not Flint. This is a very, very small community."

By comparison, Newark, New Jersey, had its first lead action level exceedance in 2017, and as of the first month of 2021, the city replaced 16,577 lead services lines, according to the city of Newark's website.

Chris Cook Abonmarche — who heads Abonmarche Consultants, the contracted engineering firm for Benton Harbor overseeing pipe replacement — said there is a "contractor capacity" issue the city faces in expediting the process because it takes time to plan and implement.

"It could take as long as a decade, but of course the community's under obligation to have the lead service lines replaced in 20 years, so 10 is an improvement," Abonmarche said. "But 10 (years) does not satisfy the needs and desires of the residents right now. Of course, they want it quicker."

Carmela Patton, 43, a lifelong resident of Benton Harbor, said the lead problem is "sickening." Her 18-year-old daughter has had learning challenges, and she wonders if they are the result of lead exposure.

"I don't know if it's from her drinking the water, growing up off the water, not knowing it was that bad," said Patton, who also has a 7-year-old child. "I hate for them to brush their teeth, wash their face, let alone bathe in it."

Patton said Benton Harbor gets overlooked by state and federal officials. "Like Flint went nationwide everywhere. The only time we get blown up is when they want to talk about the killings and the shootings," she said.

About the 20-year period to get the pipes replaced, Patton said, "I pray we're all still here to witness it."

Replacement 'takes time'

Benton Harbor officials in June finally received $5.6 million in EPA grant funds initially approved under the administration of former President Barack Obama to replace hundreds of lead service lines.

But Mayor Marcus Muhammad said the city manager did not share the funding had been received with him and the council, and that he had been unaware the money had been officially allocated by the EPA on June 7. City Manager Ellis Mitchell could not be reached for comment.

Muhammad said he has used his office as a "bully pulpit to illuminate the issue and the problem (of lead) and the need for it to be corrected" and that he should have been informed.

He said he's happy the funding has arrived and "that the work is going forward unbeknownst me knowing all the nuts and bolts and the details of what's happening right now on the ground."

"One home is one too many to exceed the lead level," Muhammad said.

The city is also vying for $15 million more in loans from the state that along with the federal EPA funds would replace up to 90% of the pipes, Muhammad said.

An investigation is needed to figure out how many pipes are actually lead, he said. "These things have to run hand in hand, and I think we're going to know a lot after this first and second phase of investigations and know truly how many remain," Abonmarche added.

The city has used part of the EPA funds to hire a consultant to conduct a corrosion control study as required by the state that should take six to 12 months, said Jason Marquardt, an official with Abonmarche. In addition, bids have been put out to contract 100 service line replacements as part of the first phase that would be completed next April.

Marquardt said another construction contract will go out in the winter to replace another 260 pipes after next spring. The city will then replace 260 pipes in each phase until the grant money is depleted, he said.

Sampling ramps up

EGLE officials said they are committed to working with Benton Harbor to get the lead amounts reduced in its drinking water.

Residents have been advised "how to protect themselves by taking actions ranging from running their water in the mornings prior to first use to obtaining a lead reducing water filter," EGLE spokesman Scott Dean said.

The Berrien County Health Department has been providing free filters to residents with funding from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Dean noted although the city has made updates to its water treatment plant, much of the city's water distribution system is around 100 years old.

"Several water mains and lead service lines were installed in the first half of the 20th century, and many homes built before the 1960s are likely to have lead service lines or pipes that pose a health risk to residents," he said.

The city installed corrosion control treatment technology at its water plant in March 2019 to reduce the amount of corrosivity in the water, Dean said, and is increasing the monitoring of lead and copper in drinking water.

"Benton Harbor is now sampling twice as many homes as it did previously and increased the testing frequency to every six months instead of every three years," Dean said. "The increased testing will help measure the effectiveness of the corrosion control treatment in lowering lead levels."


Twitter: @leonardnfleming

Full story: The Detroit News

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Public Advisory for Drinking Water Customers in the City of Benton Harbor

 The City of Benton Harbor has been conducting ongoing testing of the City's water supply in accordance with the regulations under the lead and copper Rule of the Drinking Water Act for the State of Michigan. On August 2, 2021, Benton Harbor found that more than 10% of the water samples recently gathered in 78 residencies exceeded the Action Level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) for lead, resulting in Benton Harbor's sixth Action Level Exceedance (ALE). The  90th percentile for these samples was 24 ppb for lead, with 11 of 78 samples having lead samples in excess of 15 ppb. There are many homes in Benton Harbor that have lead service lines , the pipes that deliver water to your home , as a result , the ALE will continue until lead sampling show less lead, so that less than 10% of the samples are above the Action Level

Since October 2018, the City of Benton Harbor, along with many community partners, have been taking several steps to reduce resident's exposure to lead. The city of Benton Harbor is continuing to replace the City's lead service lines, maintaining corrosion control in the water supply at the City's Water Plant , and providing ongoing support and education for residents with water testing and understanding how they can limit lead exposure. The City is committed to continuing to take all corrective actions including partnering with the Benton Harbor Water Outreach Task Force.

The Task Force will provide regular updates about lead outreach efforts and  lead service lines. Members of the Task Force will include a representative from the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, the City of Benton Harbor, Berrien County Health Department, Andrews University, Freshwater Future, Benton Spirit Community Newspaper, along with the office of the Clean Water Public Advocate, Michigan Department of Environment,  Great Lakes, and Energy, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. If you are interested in helping to support and upcoming events.

The problem : Benton Harbor's water distribution system, which are pipes that help deliver water to your home, is about 100 years old. It is known that a high number of lead service lines were installed in the first half of the 20th century and many homes built before the 1960's are likely to have lead service lines or pipes that pose a health risk to residents.

How to protect your family : Obtain a lead reducing filter and maintain it by regularly cleaning and changing the cartridge. While the city is replacing lead service lines , you should routinely replace your filter cartridge.         

Monday, July 26, 2021

Benton Harbor is in a Water Crisis

 I obtained a copy of Benton Harbor"s Water Asset Management Plan to see if it answers any of my questions. The 2017 WAMP  includes a copy of a 2008 inspection report for the elevated tank.Based on the information to which I have access, I want to raise concerns about the current tank project. I see that the tank rehabilitation project has the potential to increase lead exposure in an already vulnerable environment justice population, it is not economically sustainable over the medium to long term , and the decision to undertake it was made years ago and does not consider current circumstances 

Public Health circumstances in Benton Harbor and availability of infrastructure funding have changed substantially since the 2017 Benton Harbor Water Asset Management Plan. It is important to take a moment to consider stopping the immediate course of action and changing course to designing and building a new tank. This action , though extraordinary, may have the out come of protecting public health, spread money more efficiently , and more rapidly meeting the water quality needs of the residents of Benton Harbor.

The following discussion summarizes my observations, concerns, and questions regarding the current tank rehabilitation project.

The 2008 tank inspection report does not identify the lead paint/lead dust risk from the original 1962 coating, but it says that the 1990 coating is lead free. Where the tank assessment discusses the option of scouring the surface, it merely presents the cost of sandblasting with containment , but it doesn't explain the range of potential risks that the containment system is protecting from. The potential for lead exposure is not identified as a risk associated with the work. I do not if anyone in Benton Harbor has had the opportunity to consider its full implications, especially how this potential lead exposure layers on top of the three consecutive years of lead action level exceedances  in the drinking water which were unknown at the time of the 2017 Water Asset Management Plan.

The 2008 inspection report identifies the myriad and water quality issues that need to be resolved with the old tank , the safety deficiencies based on current code (3 updates since original construction) and "The age and design of this tank with its lattice legs , structs , sway rods , and riveted construction make it very expensive to maintain compared to modern tanks". I'm sure the number of issues has only increased since 2008, but additional deficiencies are not identified in the 2017 plan.

From my brief read, it looks like Benton Harbor is investing a minimum of $400 k in a tank they know must be replaced for $ 3 million  within the next 20 years with the unidentified consequence of potentially exposing the entire city to lead dust.

The $319 K rehab estimate in the 5 year plan does not include the sandblasting which is estimated at $375 K. Since I do not know the scope of the current tank rehab contract and whether that contract addresses all the deficiencies identified in the 2008 report. It's possible that the current contract could be for much more than $600 K given the extent of deficiencies identified in the 2008 report, thus making the funding even more difficult to raise in the future with more effective , modern tank in the future. The net results will be an even greater burden on rate payers for water quality and reliability that they need now.

Further I received FOIA information on the history of operators in charge at the Benton Harbor water treatment plant. The current operator in charge has only been in the position for one month and is certified for treatment , but not distribution. The person in the most important position to advocate for Benton Harbor water system needs is new and has not yet achieved the certification most relevant to operating elevated drinking water storage tanks. This put Benton Harbor at a severe disadvantage for identifying issues and modifying strategies's to best meet Benton Harbor's needs as the tank rehabilitation project progresses.

Given the influx of new money at the municipal and state level in Michigan, the current funding environment is substantially different in July 2021 compare to when the Benton Harbor Water Asset Management Plan was written in 2017. It is important to consider whether an immediate change of course can leverage new sources of funding , accelerate tank replacement in Benton Harbor , prevent a citywide exposure to lead dust, and provide a much-needed new tank that provides better water quality for the city, reduced maintenance costs, and improved safety for water department employees.  

Lead is a potent irreversible neurotoxin with no safe level of exposure. Benton Harbor is a highly vulnerable environmental justice community with many ongoing sources of lead exposure that need to be removed and re mediated. Every time we miss an opportunity for exposure prevention, we are exposing another generation.

Here are the question I have based on the information available to me;

Does the city have access to clear information about the potential lead dust exposure risk from tank sandblasting? What site inspection and monitoring requirement are built into the current rehabilitation contract?

What is the scope and cost of the current contract to rehabilitate the old tank? 

Has the engineering consultant considered the additional lead dust exposure risk from sandblasting the tank on top of the current ongoing lead exposures, including the ongoing lead in water action level exceedance , and known lead in paint in housing ? If this project was approved in 2017 , they wouldn't have had the additional context of three consecutive years of lead action level exceedances to understand that this is layering lead exposure on top of lead exposure, but it is important to consider at this time.

Has there been any assessment of whether dismantling the old tank(which  must happen eventually ) might be a lower lead dust exposure risk that sandblasting.

What are the financial and health risks that would be associated with stopping work on the current rehabilitation project/ Can Benton Harbor change course right now and minimize losses associated with the tank.

Has Benton Harbor submitted any water infrastructure projects for earmarks? has the new elevated tank already been submitted ? This is a great opportunity to immediately put the influx  of new money to work for Benton Harbor without impacting water rates. I recommend prioritizing earmark requests for a new elevated tank and lead service line replacement for the entire city.