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Mayor says Benton Harbor will need more support from state to fix water system

City Commissioner Marcus Muhammad outlines his problems with Benton Harbor's emergency manager for a state treasury official Thursday.
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Marcus Muhammad speaks at a community meeting in Benton Harbor in 2012.

Bottled water is available for the residents of Benton Harbor. For a list of distribution sites and times, go here, or call 2-1-1.

The mayor of Benton Harbor is calling for more federal and state support to improve the city’s water system, after regulators found a number of problems.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) both ordered Benton Harbor to make fixes to its water system in separate reports released this week. The regulators inspected the city’s water system in September and October after yet another round of tests showed elevated levels of lead in Benton Harbor’s drinking water. Tests have repeatedly shown high levels of lead there going back to 2018.

The federal and state regulators said they found dozens of deficiencies in the water system that need to be fixed.

“The report from EPA is, you know, blaming the victim, which is the classic conclusion of environmental racism in America,” says Marcus Muhammad, Benton Harbor’s mayor. “Because if you’re going to diagnose the problem, but not come with solutions and funding, then your condemnation and your recommendation is a symbol without substance.”Muhammad says many of the problems in the water system were created under the city’s first emergency manager, who was appointed by the state. Muhammad says the emergency manager tried to cut costs by eliminating staff in the water department.

“The report from EPA is ... blaming the victim, which is the classic conclusion of environmental racism in America."
Marcus Muhammad, Mayor of Benton Harbor

Now, he says, the state is stepping in once again, to order the water department to fix its deficiencies.

“But the damage and the wreckage had already been done and dealt by the left hand of the state,” Muhammad says.

EGLE’s inspection report found crumbling concrete, spilled chemicals and inconsistent record-keeping at Benton Harbor’s water plant. The report ultimately concluded the city lacks the technical, managerial and financial capacity to support its water system. The city has been ordered to make improvements within 120 days.

An EGLE spokesperson said the order was not intended as a “punitive exercise,” but instead was meant to highlight the needs of the system, so that different organizations could come together to solve them. But the most pressing issue is still the lead contamination. The state of Michigan has been offering bottled water to residents at pickup sites throughout the city. On Thursday, the state offered a resource fair to connect residents with other forms of support.

The state also budgeted $10 million to replace lead pipes in the city in its 2022 budget, and helped more than $8 million for the project. Governor Whitmer says she wants all lead pipes in Benton Harbor to be replaced within 18 months, and she’s requested another $11.4 million from the state legislature to finish the job.

Muhammad says, after a slow start in 2018, that work is now accelerating in the city. He says he expects up to 100 lead pipes in Benton Harbor will be replaced before this winter.

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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