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Federal lawsuit accuses state and city of “reckless and outrageous” conduct in Benton Harbor water crisis

faucet running water
Marina Shemesh
Public Domain

Residents in Benton Harbor have filed a federal lawsuit accusing the city and state of “reckless and outrageous” conduct in their handling of the water crisis.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday says residents weren’t properly notified about the dangers posed by lead in the water. Tests first showed high levels of lead in Benton Harbor’s drinking water in 2018, and the problem hasn’t gone away in the three years since. The city did notify residents at the time, but the lawsuit claims those notifications were inadequate, and it says residents should have been told not to drink the water at all. Instead, residents were offered filters to install in their homes to reduce their lead exposure.

“The filters in and of themselves was no solution,” says Alice Jennings, a partner at Edwards & Jennings, a Detroit-based firm that filed the lawsuit on behalf of Benton Harbor residents.

The lawsuit lists problems faced by a number of residents who continued to drink the water in Benton Harbor until this fall, when the state first started offering bottled water to residents.

It says one resident, Doretha Braziel, fed her newborn grandchild formula mixed with tap water this summer, thinking it was safe. Tests later showed lead was in the water at Braziel’s home at levels nearly 60 times the federal action level, according to the lawsuit.

The federal government says no amount of lead is safe for consumption. The lawsuit calls for ongoing medical monitoring of all residents in the city, including blood tests to determine lead exposure.

“We’ve got a massive crisis that should have a whole of government, including federal government, oversight at this point,” Jennings says.

As of now, the state continues to lead the effort to provide relief to the residents of Benton Harbor, providing bottled water and dedicating more than $18 million to the effort to replace lead pipes in the city.

But Jennings says that help is coming too late, and it’s not enough to repair the damage caused by the previous failures.

“This is a litany of failures, a litany of harm to this community and the indifference that it’s been shown as a predominantly African American community,” Jennings says.

Robert Leddy, a spokesperson for Governor Whitmer, defended the state’s actions, saying staff have been “on the ground” in the city since it first discovered the lead problem in 2018.

“In accordance with the state’s strict Lead and Copper Rule, the state began urging the city to immediately conduct outreach to residents and ordered the city to apply corrosion control to try to bring down the levels and stabilize the drinking water,” Leddy said. “That is why the governor has issued an executive directive to bring a whole-of-government approach to ensuring that the people of Benton Harbor have safe drinking water.”

The city and state have not yet formally answered the complaint in federal court. The lawsuit is seeking class-action status to represent the nearly 10,000 people who get their water from the Benton Water system. It’s asking for financial compensation and ongoing health and education support for residents.

Jennings points out the city is also still asking residents to pay their water bills, even though residents can’t drink it. She says attorneys may ask a judge to step in and stop the city from requiring payments for water that people can’t drink.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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