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Groups call for federal government to use emergency powers in Benton Harbor over lead in water

City Hall in Benton Harbor.
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio

There was lead in the drinking water in 2018. There was lead in the water in 2019 and 2020. This summer, after a sixth round of testing, there was still an elevated level of lead in Benton Harbor’s drinking water.

On Thursday, a coalition of national and local groups called for the federal government to step in. They formally submitted a petition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to use its emergency powers to provide bottled water to Benton Harbor residents.

“It’s shocking that we are dealing with this in the same state where Flint happened, in the same region of EPA,” said Cyndi Roper, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC.

The NRDC hosted a Zoom call on Thursday to discuss the petition it filed along with Benton Harbor groups, as well as activists who were involved in pushing for change during the Flint water crisis.

On the call, Roper said it was fair to compare what’s happened in Benton Harbor to Flint.

“The levels that we are seeing in Benton Harbor, and have been seeing in Benton Harbor for the past at least three years, are as high as they were in the early days of the Flint water crisis.

Since the fall of 2018 when Benton Harbor officials first found lead levels in the drinking water above the so-called “action level,” the Berrien County Health Department has offered free filters for residents.

But Reverend Edward Pinkney, a local activist and president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, says some residents don’t know how to use the filters. He says local leaders haven’t done enough to help.

"There's still a lot of people that's unaware how much lead is in the water," says Benton Harbor resident Stacey Branscumb.

“They failed to even help them put them on the faucet,” Pinkney says. We have went to numerous homes and found that the water filter was sitting on their sink.”

Stacey Branscumb, a Benton Harbor resident who spoke on the Zoom call, says he believes the water contamination contributed to the death of his family’s dog. He says the water in his home showed lead at 469 parts per billion, more than 30 times the federal action level.

“There’s still a lot of people that’s unaware how much lead is in the water,” Branscumb says, “and what effects it could have on you.”

On Wednesday, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced a plan to spend $20 million to replace all the lead water pipes in the city of Benton Harbor within the next five years.

But the NRDC and local groups say that’s too long for residents to wait.

“This needs to be done now,” said Pinkney. “The people are suffering.”

In the 35-page petition, the groups called on the EPA to begin offering bottled water to all Benton Harbor residents, starting immediately.

“EPA has received the petition and is carefully considering the issues and concerns raised by this community in the petition,” the EPA said in a statement provided by a spokesperson. “We are closely monitoring lead-related health issues in Benton Harbor. The agency is in active communication with concerned residents, community groups and the State of Michigan.”

In the meantime, the Berrien County Health Department hasa list of resourcesfor residents on its website.  

*This story has been corrected. The name of the group is the Natural Resources Defense Council. An earlier version of the story had an incorrect name.

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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