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EGLE director grilled on Benton Harbor water

Benton Harbor City Hall front steps
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Benton Harbor City Hall

The director of the state’s environment department faced tough questions on Thursday from a legislative committee about the drinking water crisis in Benton Harbor.

Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) Director Liesl Clark was asked repeatedly why the state took so long to engage, when for three years tests showed elevated lead levels in Benton Harbor’s water.

Republican Representative Steve Johnson chairs the House Oversight Committee. He said there were plenty of signs of problems with lead in the city’s drinking water going back three years.

“Seemingly out of nowhere, now we’re hearing all this action has to occur,” he said. “So I guess I’m just trying to wonder since we know we have other communities that may be facing this issue, how many failed tests do they need before they declare that emergency.”

Clark, a member of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s cabinet, insisted the state acted properly, and set an 18 month goal to remove all lead pipes.

Clark said she can’t guarantee Benton Harbor’s water is safe until all the lead pipes are removed.

“We must recognize that our shared goal of safe water for all Benton Harbor residents will not be achieved until we get all the lead pipes out of the ground,” she said. Clark said it’s a problem shared by other cities with aging infrastructure, poverty and eroding tax bases. She said it is a problem the Legislature can help solve with appropriations.

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad agreed, and renewed his request for $28 million to replace lead lines in the city. Muhammad met with Governor Whitmer when she made an unannounced drop-by in the city on Tuesday.

“Because if we recognize the urgency, the response should be in kind,” he said. “So, if you know this is an urgent 911, then cut the check.”

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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