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The Great Lakes region is blessed with an abundance of water. But water quality, affordability, and aging water infrastructure are vulnerabilities that have been ignored for far too long. In this series, members of the Great Lakes News Collaborative, Michigan Public, Bridge Michigan, Great Lakes Now, The Narwhal, and Circle of Blue, explore what it might take to preserve and protect this precious resource. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

MDHHS won’t say filtered Benton Harbor water is safe to drink, but residents can decide what’s best for themselves

Kelly House
Bridge Michigan

For five months, state health officials have told Benton Harbor residents not to drink their tap water. The warning came after an inspection at the city’s water treatment plant uncovered numerous violations related to disinfection. Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services also cited ongoing elevated lead levels. But now that safety message is shifting.

Teams of workers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency went into nearly 200 Benton Harbor homes to get water samples late last year. Tera Fong is the Water Division Director for the EPA region that includes Michigan.

“We found that properly operated filters were successful in reducing lead considerably and consistently with the performance expectations of those filters. We did see firsthand that that filters were often not operated and installed properly,” Fong said earlier this month.

Fong says it would be helpful if someone could show residents how to properly install and maintain filters, but they do work on lead. Filters are still available for free at the local health department.

What Fong did not say was whether the filtered water is now safe to drink.

“We're committed to working closely with Michigan, it is their recommendation that folks use bottled water and we encourage residents to follow their state and local guidance,” Fong said.

But the state health department is quietly shifting that guidance.

Instead of saying only drink bottled water, a spokeswoman for MDHHS wrote “residents in Benton Harbor can choose which option works best for their families.” At the exact same time, she would not say that the filtered water is safe to drink. State environmental regulators did not respond to requests for clarification.

It’s been months, if not years, of mixed messages about whether or not Benton Harbor’s water is safe. Elevated lead levels were first reported in 2018. Back then, the advice was to flush tap water to lower the risk of lead exposure. Then free lead filters were available.

But after years of tests showed lead levels weren’t getting better, last fall local activists went directly to the EPA for action.

Longtime Benton Harbor resident Emma Kinnard is a part of that group.

I know that there is violations at the water plant. When is that cleared up?” Kinnard asked locally elected leaders at a city commission meeting last month.

She knows there was an inspection at the city’s water plant in September that turned up several violations. Most of the violations had nothing to do with lead. Most of them had to do with disinfection treatment processes that are done to keep harmful bacteria, like E. Coli and Legionella for example, from developing in the water once it leaves the plant.

The carbon filters work on lead, but won’t provide protection against microbial contamination. In some conditions, studies show the carbon can be food for microorganisms.

Kinnard’s old water line was replaced earlier this year. But she told her locally elected leaders, she’s concerned about the mixed messages.

Make the people clearly understand whether the water is okay to drink and we need to know that now. Because a lot of people are telling us once those lead lines is changed, that the water’s alright. Then I was given a call and the lady told me she says ‘no continue to use your bottled water.’ So I’m wanting to know why am I getting double messages?”

Mayor Marcus Muhammad told Kinnard he has continued to tell people who ask him to only consume bottled water.

Kinnard did not get an answer at that city commission meeting about the water plant problems. So I put her question to Tera Fong, again, she’s with the EPA.

Yes, there was a recent inspection, and you know, we noted that through a release that many of the priority items for that were addressed. But like most things in the enforcement space where we're not able to share too many details on that,” Fong said.

So yes, Fong said a recent inspection shows many of the problems at the water plant were addressed. But Fong can’t tell Kinnard which violations have been fixed and which ones haven’t. The inspection report isn’t available to the public yet.

All this leaves Benton Harbor residents without satisfying answers about the safety of their water.

In the meantime, state health officials say residents can decide what’s convenient for themselves. Emma Kinnard says she’s sticking to drinking bottled water.

Lindsey Smith was a guest on the Monday, March 14 episode of Stateside. You can hear her discussion with April Baer at approximately the 4:32 mark in the audio player at the top of this page.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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