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Michigan aims to replace Benton Harbor's lead pipes in 18 months, Gilchrist says


Benton Harbor — Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist vowed Thursday that the state will find millions of dollars needed to replace lead service lines in 18 months, calling it an “appropriate escalation” to address the city's ongoing lead-tainted water crisis. 

The "all-hands-on-deck" effort is part of an executive directive by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office that will continue delivery of bottled water, health care, home lead pipe replacement and other services for Benton Harbor residents, Gilchrist said during a Thursday press conference in the southwest Michigan community of 9,615 residents.

The Democratic Whitmer administration's announcement, which has followed extensive criticism by residents and environmental groups about delays in addressing the city's water crisis, is faster than a prior plan to budget $20 million for a five-year removal process. Whitmer recently signed a budget bill with a $10 million appropriation for Benton Harbor lead pipe replacement.

Gilchrist identified "a significant amount of federal resources that have yet to be appropriated” by the Legislature as the source for additional cash. The federal aid can be used for infrastructure projects such as removing lead pipes, he said. A governor's office release said additional money would be tapped from "federal, state and local resources."

“When a community faces tough times, we have to show up for and with them to fight for and with them with everything that we have,” Gilchrist said. “Because we are all part of the same Michigan family.”

Despite a lack of public warnings that the lead-tainted water was unsafe following three straight years of lead exceedances, the lieutenant governor maintained that the state has always taken Benton Harbor's lead issues seriously. His remarks came on the same day The Detroit News reported that state environmental officials had been slow to respond to dealing with the crisis by not warning residents that the drinking water was unsafe and that its corrosion control measures did not work.

More: State criticized for inadequate response to Benton Harbor water crisis

“I think what’s important to recognize is today’s action represent, I think, an appropriate escalation of that response,” said Gilchrist when asked about the state's delayed action. “We know that no amount of lead in the water is safe. So this action that we’ve taken today…we believe has escalated the state response to meet this challenge.”

"What happened in the past" is in the past, and the administration is moving forward, he added.

Following years of criticism, residents and environmental groups are seeking federal intervention in the impoverished Michigan city. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region 5 is reviewing the petition. It follows three consecutive years of lead-in-water results that have exceeded state and federal action levels.

Critics respond

One of the petitioners welcomed the Whitmer administration's promise to get the pipes out of the ground expeditiously. But the people long ago “should have been told the water was unsafe to drink” by Whitmer, the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and Benton Harbor's mayor, said the Rev. Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council.

Pinkney did not attend Gilchrist’s news conference because he was passing out bottled water at his church — something he has done since March 2019 given the lead exceedances.

Pinkney said he appreciates the governor “doing everything that we laid out” in the petition ”to make us happy,” but he insisted residents still need to hear definitively the water is unsafe to drink. The state health department has said it's passing out free bottled water and other services out of "an abundance of caution." 

“Don’t beat around the bush talk about we’re doing this because of cautionary reasons,” Pinkney said. “That doesn’t work. Now you’re still pretending that there’s not a problem. Even today, nothing would have happened had we not filed that petition.”

While state officials maintain they are seeing improvements in reducing some lead levels in Benton Harbor, only last week did they recommend that residents only use bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing teeth.

Experts have determined there is no safe level of lead consumption, and adults exposed to lead in drinking water can develop problems in bones, teeth, blood, liver, kidney and the brain. In children, lead is more of a health risk and can affect their brains and growing bodies.

"Gov. Whitmer’s executive directive reflects urgent community priorities of securing safe water and removing lead water pipes. NRDC is committed to working with Benton Harbor residents and state officials to move this plan forward,” said Cyndi Roper, senior Michigan advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

One Republican legislative leader indicated support for directing more aid toward replacing Benton Harbor's lead pipes while criticizing two years of Whitmer administration inaction.

"Lead line replacement is a long-term solution that absolutely must be achieved," said Abby Mitch, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, citing a Senate GOP plan for spending $600 million in federal dollars on statewide lead line replacement compared with a $200 million Whitmer plan.

"The promise of long-term solutions from the governor’s office should not be allowed to distract from the absolute failure of that office to protect the families in Benton Harbor," Mitch added. 

A Senate hearing on the GOP plan is set for Wednesday.

To date, 219 lines in Benton Harbor have been replaced. There are an estimated 2,400 lead lines in the city.

Lack of warning resonates

The pastors who flanked Gilchrst at the rainy news conference at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services' Berrien County office on Thursday had concerns about the lack of a state warning about the drinking water even as they welcomed Whitmer's actions.

While lauding the state for making bottled water and filters available to residents, the clergy members wondered in response to reporters' questions why they just found out a few weeks ago that the city had three straight years of lead exceedances.

That question has been brought up “more than once,” said Bishop James Atterberry of Brotherhead Church, and “the truth of the matter is that they really don’t know what happened.”

Benton Harbor has had three consecutive years of lead levels in its water that have exceeded state and federal action levels of 15 parts per billion. The high readings have continued despite an effort by state agencies to have the city inject a corrosion control blend into the drinking water. The citywide reading in 2018 was 22 ppb compared with 24 ppb in this year's sampling.

“It kinda went from one day (water was clean) to a situation where we had to have bottled water,” Atterberry said. “The information we are getting now is coming from those in charge, and they’re saying that they didn’t see that it was that bad.”

The Rev. Maurice McAfee, the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, said he also wondered “why the information was so late in getting out to us.”

While getting lead pipes out of the ground and cleaning up the water is paramount, McAfee said he wants to “backtrack and figure out how did we get to the point to make sure it never happens again.”

“This is the first time in the last couple of weeks that we heard it was three years,” he said, referring to the lead exceedances. “We’re learning as we go.”

Mayor Marcus Muhammad said the city has been working to solve the lead pipe problem “with the resources and the money that we had.” Now “the all-out effort from the state" will allow the city to “really intensify in solving the problem," he said. 

Muhammad said the city campaign for bottled water began in 2018 after 30 homes had exceeded the federal lead limit. The state began distributing bottled water almost three years later on Sept. 30.

Pinkney attacked the mayor as being complicit in not sounding the alarm.

Muhammad knew about the lead situation in 2018, 2019 and 2020, Pinkney said, adding that "he was telling people that the water was good to drink, and he knew it wasn’t.”

Muhammad said at the press conference that, with the corrosion control, “that takes time to work." The city was under state emergency management control in 2017, a year before the first lead exceedance, he added.

“But we’re not going to look backwards. We’re going to look forward, because it’s on my watch, it’s on Gov. Whitmer’s watch and we’re going to solve it once and for all," Muhammad said. 

Republicans weigh in

The state Department of Health and Human Services will continue to provide educational outreach, water sampling and filter distribution, Director Elizabeth Hertel said.

“No matter where a person lives, no matter their identity, their name; everyone, and I want to repeat that, everyone deserves access to water that they can trust to drink themselves and that they can trust to give to their families,” Hertel said.

Since Sept. 30, the state Department of Health and Human Services has delivered more than 33,500 cases of bottled water to city residents. It also has distributed hundreds of water filters, but early efforts were criticized as not doing enough to educate residents on how to install the devices correctly and encourage them to install the filters.

The national and state Republican parties signaled Thursday they are making the lead-tainted water crisis in Benton Harbor a campaign issue.

“While it is about time Gretchen Whitmer takes a closer look at the situation in Benton Harbor, where Michiganders have been without access to clean and safe drinking water, the timeliness of her addressing this issue raises far more questions," Michigan Republican Party spokesman Gustavo Portela said in a statement.

"Whitmer and her administration’s inaction in addressing this issue is yet another failed promise to add to the growing list, and this one comes with catastrophic implications for the residents of Benton Harbor.”

The first year of results that exceeded state and federal action limits occurred in the final year of the Republican administration of Gov. Rick Snyder, who has been criminally charged by Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel's office in the Flint water crisis.

lfleming@detroitnews.com