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Petitioners worry there’s a lack of transparency in new Benton Harbor water inspection report

Benton Harbor's water system, built in the 1950s and most recently upgraded just a few years ago, has fallen into disarray and requires millions of dollars of upgrades to reliably deliver clean water.
Kelly House
Bridge Michigan
Benton Harbor's water system, built in the 1950s and most recently upgraded just a few years ago, has fallen into disarray and requires millions of dollars of upgrades to reliably deliver clean water.

Regulators need to be more transparent about whether Benton Harbor’s water plant is meeting drinking water rules. That’s the demand from a group of activists, experts, and a local water council.

Elevated lead levels were first reported in the city 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, the group went directly to the EPA for immediate action.

Last fall,inspectors found several violations at Benton Harbor's water treatment plant. Most of the violations had nothing to do with lead. Instead, the violations concerned 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.

In a follow-up report released late last month, the EPA said there were ongoing issues at the plant, but that “none of those issues cited during the inspection currently impact water quality.”

A spokesman for the state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy responded in an email Monday that there “are currently no health-based Safe Drinking Water Act violations” in Benton Harbor.

EGLE spokesman Hugh McDiarmid wrote in an email the treatment plant has four violations currently, most of them having to do with the water system not notifying residents about violations in a timely manner.

But the group said they want EPA and state regulators to show the group how they’ve made that determination “in spite of longstanding and extensive” violations.

In particular, Elin Betanzo, who heads the consulting firm Safe Water Engineering LLC, highlighted one new finding from the February inspection that showed chlorine analyzers weren’t hooked up where the plant workers believed they were previously. That means the disinfection levels recorded at the plant “are not an accurate representation of the residual disinfectant levels throughout the treatment process,” the EPA report noted.

EGLE staff are “confident there has been adequate disinfection for treated water” McDiarmid wrote. He said staff are working with Benton Harbor plant workers to make sure chlorine can be calculated and added correctly.

Betanzo said some of the information EGLE provided Michigan Radio was encouraging, and more detailed than the group of petitioners had received in the past two months. But she said it’s still not enough.

“It’s like math class: show your work, don’t just write the answer,” Betanzo said in a follow-up email.

“After everything Benton Harbor has been through, the community deserves this clarity and transparency about what is happening at the water treatment plant so they can have appropriate confidence when they use their drinking water,” she said.

Betanzo, Reverend Edward Pinkney and others on a press call Monday morning said they are not opposed to filter use. They said what they’re looking for is clear reasons and messages for how and why decisions about water safety are made.

“We have been doing everything in our power to keep the lines of communication open,” Pinkney, a Benton Harbor resident, said of the relationship between the petitioners and regulators.

“Unfortunately, I think they believe that eventually we will go away if they ignore us,” he said.

Nick Leonard, the executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, said the group of petitioners have been communicating with regulators, but he isn’t confident they’ll get the detailed answers he feels the community needs to restore trust and confidence in their water.

“The longer that we go without getting more cooperative posture from our government partners, the more we’re going to have to reassess how we, as advocates, go about this issue,” Leonard said.

In the meantime, state health officials have said residents can decide what’s convenient for themselves, bottled or filtered water. When repeatedly asked last month if the filtered water was safe, a spokeswoman for MDHHS refused to clarify, writing “residents in Benton Harbor can choose which option works best for their families.”

An EPA study shows carbon filters work on lead in Benton Harbor. But filters won’t provide protection against microbial contamination. In some conditions, studies show that carbon can be food for microorganisms.

“We spoke to the EPA about the water plant, and I specifically asked them, ‘Was the (filtered) water safe to drink?’ and they could not answer that,” Pinkney said.

“If you can’t say that, then you have no business talking about water filters, until we get those matters resolved,” Pinkney added.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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