Monday, October 10, 2022

The long-lasting Benton Harbor water crisis has finally resulted in a victory for the Benton Harbor Community Water Council

by the Benton Harbor Community Water Council

Since the Benton Harbor water crisis began in 2018, Benton Harbor has been ground zero for lead in drinking water.  Benton Harbor is a majority Black city long burdened by significant poverty and legacy pollution as an environmental justice sacrifice zone in the interest of the local manufacturing corporations, i.e., Whirlpool.

On top of such socioeconomic and environmental challenges, the avoidable water crisis in Benton Harbor was protracted because the Benton Harbor Community Water Council (BHCWC), along with voices of residents, were dismissed and ignored while our drinking water was poisoned with lead, city-wide. 

The city schedule for water sampling for lead was non-compliant with the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) for over 6 cycles, and crucial data points from water samples showed extremely high lead. This extremely important information was hidden from public knowledge in order to make Benton Harbor water appear to be in compliance with the state and national LCR.

In order to navigate the water crisis, the BHCWC became intimately knowledgeable about the LCR regulations. The council also educated the public.  Now, the council and many residents understand the limitations of the LCR from a public health standpoint, and are able to identify necessary LCR policy changes.  

BHCWC wants to share these lessons learned for the benefit of the greater good.  

It's been over 3 years since the BHCWC and a group of 21 community and environmental organizations filed petitions for the US-EPA to intervene in Benton Harbor after more than three years of high lead contamination. The 9,700 residents of this majority black, low-income community, where the majority of the residents get their water through a lead service line, had 90 percentile lead levels ranging from 22 to 32, with some individual lead results at nearly 900ppb, from 2018 through 2021. The Michigan Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy* (EGLE) did the minimum possible to inform this community about the water crisis.

This is a huge win for the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, led by Rev. Edward Pinkney, and for the residents of Benton Harbor. It has been just over one year since the petition was filed. The petition got the Governor moving since it’s an election year. We are anticipating very soon an announcement that all lead service lines have been replaced.

In the midst of this success, the crisis also revealed alarming information over the past year. We learned that despite their name change, EGLE has hardly learned any lessons from the Flint Water Crisis. They failed to take swift and comprehensive action to educate this environmental justice community on the risk and prevalence of lead, and hardly did anything to ensure safe water was available for all residents.  

We learned that regular mandatory water plant inspections have been turning up significant treatment deficiencies for years that prevented the water utility, EGLE, and EPA from being able to confirm whether treatment requirements were being met at the treatment plant. It took EGLE over 6 months to produce data to confirm that treatment processes were meeting all requirements under the Safe Drinking Water Act/Surface Water Treatment Rules despite them stating the water was safe to drink in November of 2021.

EGLE and Michigan Dept. of Health & Human Services (MDHHS) continue to avoid having public, transparent community meetings to explain the origins, progress, and risk of the water crisis to residents of Benton Harbor.

Using filters was not advised by BHCWC early on since filters hide bacteria and the water plant was not in compliance (water contained bacteria).  And, EGLE could not confirm Benton Harbor was meeting requirements at the water treatment plant, 

As of now, EGLE and MDHHS are not saying what residents need to know:  It should be made unequivocally clear that residents need to continue to drink bottled water or use a filter in their home for at least 6 months after lead service line replacement. This is recommended by the US-EPA and required in the Lead and Copper Rule Revision in all municipalities.

It is believed that Gov. Whitmer is not happy that a black man, Rev. Edward Pinkney, blew the whistle on her. We suspect she is planning an attack on Pinkney and the BHCWC. We will need your help. Our suspicion is based on a recent action of Whitmer’s:  She ordered state police to come to Pinkney’s house to accuse him of selling water to South Bend.  This couldn’t be farther from the truth and is, frankly, laughable.

*Formerly The Michigan Dept. of Environment