Watchdog to probe EPA handling of Benton Harbor
Updated: Feb. 19, 2022 | Published: Feb. 18, 2022.
‘We have a national crisis here, the urgency is not happening,’; Benton Harbor residents speak out after elevated levels of lead found in the water
By Garret Ellison | email@example.com BENTON HARBOR, MI — A federal watchdog announced an investigation into the government’s handling of lead-tainted tap water in Benton Harbor, a majority Black city of 9,800 with high poverty in southwest Michigan which has been relying on bottled water for the past five months.
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiated an audit on Friday, Feb. 18, stating in a letter to agency administrators that it would review whether a 2016 policy on “elevation” of critical public health issues was followed.
The investigation follows a season of upheaval in Benton Harbor, where the state health department began urging people to use bottled water following three years of high lead results and chronic operational problems at the water plant.
It also follows a petition filed with EPA in September by a group of community advocates who sought a federal intervention in Benton Harbor, which was under state-appointed emergency financial management from 2010 to 2016.
Those advocates welcomed the investigation.
“For years, Benton Harbor residents said the water was contaminated and for years we were ignored,” said Rev. Edward Pinkney, a local faith leader and president of Benton Harbor Community Water Council, who was among the petitioners. An investigation into what the EPA did and did not do for this environmental justice community is long overdue.
In a letter to Radhika Fox, assistant administrator for the EPA Office of Water, and Debra Shore, administrator for EPA Region 5, the inspector general’s office indicated the investigation is part of a broader effort to improve how EPA addresses environmental injustices to historically marginalized communities.
The letter requested copies of training materials and instructions to Region 5 staff about the 2016 memorandum, “Policy on Elevation of Critical Public Health Issues,” all Benton Harbor-related complaints from the EPA drinking water hotline and any correspondence about their resolution.
“The anticipated benefits of this audit are to determine if the EPA can improve the speed at which public health protections are delivered to communities facing imminent and substantial public health risks,” wrote Michael Davis, a director with the inspector general.
The agency said it would cooperate with the investigation.
“No family should ever have to worry about the water coming from their tap and the Benton Harbor community is no exception,” said EPA Region 5 spokesperson Taylor Gillespie. “EPA is committed to ensuring that everyone has access to clean drinking water and addressing lead in drinking water. We always cooperate fully with the Inspector General and we look forward to their review.
In November, the EPA ordered Benton Harbor to fix its troubled drinking water plant following a September inspection that found alarming breakdowns with the chlorine disinfection treatment used to kill harmful pathogens.
In October, chronically elevated lead levels in Benton Harbor’s water gained widespread attention when the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) urged city residents to switch to bottled water while the EPA analyzed tap filters that officials began distributing in 2019.
The EPA is expected to release final results from a study on the effectiveness of those filters this month.
Benton Harbor water began testing above the 15 parts-per-billion (ppb) federal action level in October 2018. Since then, lead remained consistently high in subsequent testing, between 22- and 32-ppb, prompting escalating concern among community advocates who began to question the effectiveness of the state’s efforts to add and adjust corrosion treatment.
Corrosion inhibiting chemicals like orthophosphate are added to water systems to coat the inside of lead service lines in the distribution network and prevent the heavy metal from flaking and leaching into the water.
Lead is a potent neurotoxin that experts say has no safe level of exposure. High amounts can cause brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems and hearing and speech problems. Exposure has also been tied to lower IQ, decreased attention span and school performance in children.
In December, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) said six month testing results finally showed a reduction in lead levels.
In the meantime, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration drew criticism and scrutiny from Republicans and some advocacy circles for allowing another majority Black impoverished city to struggle with lead-tainted water after the Flint crisis.
Whitmer, a Democrat who is facing re-election this year, pledged to see all the city’s lead service lines removed by April 2023 and has sent bottled water, enhanced services, grant funding and other state government aid.
Lead line removals are expected to accelerate this spring after the city commission approved $33 million in contracts with five excavation companies. The state says bottled water will remain available until all the lead pipes are removed.
“It’s unthinkable that after the Flint crisis, another majority Black community had to wait for years before emergency action was taken when high levels of lead were found in the drinking water,” said Cyndi Roper, senior policy advocate with Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Michigan. “It’s reassuring that the EPA is investigating what happened in Benton Harbor, because we cannot let this happen to another community ever again.”