Addressing Benton Harbor’s Lead Water Crisis Took a Village—and Years
As in Flint, Michigan, severe lead contamination in Benton Harbor illustrates the obstacles environmental justice communities face, and why the fight for stronger federal protections continues.
Kyler Sumter Aug. 9, 2022
Even before elevated lead levels in Benton Harbor’s water were official, there were already rumblings in the Michigan community. Reverend Edward Pinkney recalls that the daughter of a longtime resident, who was visiting from Texas in 2018, ran the bath water and noticed it was yellow and had particles in it. She asked her mom how long it had been this way. The mother’s response: Months.
This is when residents with similar concerns formed the Benton Harbor Community Water Council (BHCWC). Then Pinkney, the organization’s president, sent the water to a public lab. Results showed lead at a concentration of more than 300 parts per billion (ppb), which severely exceeded the federal action level of 15 parts per billion.
Later that year, Cyndi Roper, NRDC’s Michigan senior policy advocate, Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, and Elin Warn Betanzo, a water safety consultant, began separately analyzing Michigan’s water data.
After the infamous water crisis in Flint, and the poor governmental response that followed, they’d been part of a coalition seeking to revise the state’s Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), which attempts to limit lead and copper in drinking water. And while their work helped ensure Michigan’s LCR became the strongest in the nation, these advocates also wanted to confirm that water utilities were adhering to the new requirements.
“In most instances, nobody is watching those compliance reports,” says Roper.“These utilities and state agencies aren’t used to anybody paying attention.”
That fall, when the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE)—the state agency responsible for regulating issues like water contamination—released the compliance report for Benton Harbor, the results were troubling. The small, majority-Black city had its first official lead “action level exceedance.” It wasn’t the last one either. More exceedances followed, in 2019, 2020, and 2021. “We were getting increasingly concerned because there’s no safe level of lead exposure, yet this community was having very persistent elevated lead levels,” says Betanzo.
The lack of aggressive action by state and local agencies in response to this ongoing crisis meant an entire community was left vulnerable to lead levels that posed extraordinary health risks. It also became the impetus for water experts, community leaders, lawyers, and advocates to come together and demand justice for the people of Benton Harbor.