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Benton Harbor to get bottled water until further notice, state sets goal to replace lead pipes in 18 months

faucet running water
Marina Shemesh
Public Domain

Three years after elevated lead levels were detected in Benton Harbor’s drinking water, Governor Gretchen Whitmer today signed an executive order to distribute bottled water to residents until further notice.

Whitmer also announced the state set a goal to replace all of Benton Harbor lead service lines in 18 months.

Under Michigan’s Lead and Copper Rule, every community is required to replace 5% of its lead service lines every year, meaning 100% replacement in 20 years. Communities with lead levels above the federal action level, like Benton Harbor, are required to replace their lead service lines at a rate of 7% meaning 100% replacement in 15 years.

Benton Harbor officials first found lead levels above the federal action level in the drinking water in the fall of 2018. No amount of lead is considered safe. A coalition of national and local groups called for the federal government to step in and use its emergency powers to provide bottled water to residents earlier in September.

Thestate health department advised earlier this week that residents use bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula. Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist said during a press conference broadcast on WOODTV.com that bottled water would be available for “as long as it's necessary.”

The order also requires that residents are offered free or low-cost lead-related health services and drinking water testing. The order also stipulates that state departments and agencies “must expeditiously take all appropriate action” to:

  • Make safe drinking water accessible to residents 
  • “Encourage and assist” Benton Harbor’s homeowners in replacing their lead pipes. 
  • Ensure residents have access to updates on lead data results, the state’s efforts and health effects of lead exposure.

Gilchrist said funding to begin the project was secured through the state budget approved last month. He said that the state still has federal resources yet to be appropriated by the Michigan State Legislature that can be used for infrastructure projects like this. He said he hopes more will be done at the federal level.

“We also are hoping that our our counterparts in Washington will very quickly come to resolution so that there's bipartisan infrastructure framework dollars that can be mobilized in states across the country, including Michigan so that that can be… allocated for problems, such as what we're dealing with here in Benton Harbor, as well as maybe in other communities in the state of Michigan,” Gilchrist said.

Whitmer also announced in a press release that a notification was submitted to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in an effort to expand the use of Medicaid Child Health Insurance Program Health Services Initiative funds for lead prevention services for Benton Harbor households. After the notification process is complete, pregnant people and children enrolled in a Medicaid Health Plan would be eligible for a free environmental investigation into their household for lead hazards and provide the work to ensure the home is lead safe.

"This is what decades of inaction by Washington and by previous administrations here in Michigan have led and that continued disinvestment in water infrastructure looks like exactly what our administration is seeking to end right now,” Gilchrist said.

Sophia Kalakailo joined Michigan Radio in Sept. 2021 and is a senior at Michigan State University studying journalism and minoring in documentary production. She previously interned at Bridge Michigan and was an editor for The State News and The Eastern Echo covering a wide range of topics.
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