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Benton Harbor drinking water lead level slowly improving

Benton Harbor City Hall front steps
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Benton Harbor City Hall

It’s taken four years, but Benton Harbor’s drinking water is once again within federal action levels for lead. Barely.

State officials admit there is more that needs to be done.

After a coalition of activists, residents, and engineers petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year, local and state officials have worked to get the lead out.

New lead test data on 63 homes with confirmed lead system lines shows slight improvement.

The State Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) said the 90th percentile value of lead was 14 parts per billion — just within the federal action level of 15 parts per billion.

“This is a significant step forward for our community as we work to ensure Benton Harbor has access to safe drinking water,” said Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad.

But there are still some significant issues. For example, one home tested at 53 parts per billion.

“[This] news does not lessen the urgency around our continuing efforts to assist the city in aggressively reducing lead exposure — through lead service line replacement and corrosion control treatment,” said Eric Oswald, director of EGLE’s Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division.

Michigan will lower its lead action level — which currently matches the federal standard at 15 parts per billion — to 12 parts per billion in January 2025.

To be clear, there is no safe level of lead in humans.

As of Friday morning, the state said 71% of service lines in Benton Harbor have been checked since last fall to see if they were lead or galvanized pipes, which can introduce lead into drinking water. But there are more than a thousand homes to go.

Meanwhile, Benton Harbor residents can still get free bottled water from the state of Michigan.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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