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State criticized for inadequate response to Benton Harbor water crisis

State and city officials treated Benton Harbor's drinking water with a corrosion chemical blend that failed to control harmful levels of lead for more than two years and rejected federal requirements to fully study its effectiveness.

As state officials waited to see if the treatment reduced lead to acceptable levels, they didn't warn Benton Harbor residents that their water was unsafe or provide alternatives, such as bottled water, until late September.

They provided water filters, but critics said not enough effort was put into showing residents how to properly install them — a point that two state environmental officials acknowledge. While state officials maintain they are seeing improvements, only last week did they recommend using only bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing teeth.

Those failures and delays are among the reasons a group of concerned residents, safe water advocates and environmentalists have filed an emergency petition seeking federal intervention to restore safe drinking water to this impoverished, majority-Black southwest Michigan city of 9,615 residents. 

"Michigan has the strongest lead in drinking water regulation in the nation, so how did another majority Black city get to three years of elevated lead levels in drinking water without anybody really batting an eye?" said Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, one of the petitioners to get the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency involved in Benton Harbor.

Local, state and federal officials need to take a hard look at why the crisis in Benton Harbor happened, especially during the Whitmer administration, he said.

The polyphosphate blend the city began using in March 2019 — and adjusted the dosage a year later — has not lowered Benton Harbor's levels of lead below the state and federal action levels. In 2018, when Benton Harbor recorded its first year of the lead exceedance, eight homes tested above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion — the highest at 60 ppb — compared with this year's readings, when 11 homes tested above 15 ppb with the highest coming in at 889 ppb.

The citywide reading in 2018 was 22 ppb compared with 24 ppb in this year's sampling. 

The lead situation in Benton Harbor, a predominately African American city, comes only a few years after the Flint water crisis discovery and promises from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that safe drinking water would be a central theme of her administration. Her predecessor, Gov. Rick Snyder, was roundly criticized and criminally charged for the lead-tainted water scandal in Flint.

Elin Betanzo, a Metro Detroit water quality specialist and former EPA official who helped uncover the Flint water crisis, said the continued exceedances of the action levels show the state's approach isn't working in Benton Harbor. And there was no "meaningful public outreach" explaining to people that the water wasn't safe to drink, she said.

"The fact that it hasn't been approached with any urgency and it's just been drawn out for so long makes me concerned that we haven't learned anything from the Flint water crisis, and we haven't made the changes necessary to ensure that a community has access to safe water to drink every day," Betanzo said.

But Liesl Clark, director of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, said statistics show lead levels are coming down and that Benton Harbor may soon stop exceeding the lead action level. "We want to get the lead out," she said.

State officials cited statistics that show since the city’s lead exceedance was first recorded in 2018, the percentage of samples where no lead was detected almost doubled, from 17% to 33%. The percentage of samples with less than 10 ppb also improved from 60% in 2018 to 79% in 2021.

But Betanzo disagrees, saying the data doesn't show lead levels are declining, as state officials argue. 

The 90th percentile amount of lead is consistently above 20 ppb and the maximum lead level detected has been steadily increasing during each six-month sampling period, ending at a high of 889 ppb, Betanzo said. The 90th percentile is a metric used to characterize the range of lead in the community that considers all the samples together.

"Their job is compliance," said Betanzo, noting Benton Harbor has been consistently above 15 ppb for three straight years. 

The samples with the higher lead readings might have been from the same homes that were sampled before, said Eric Oswald, who heads ELGE's drinking water and environmental health division, adding that the treatment plant operator in charge at the time "wouldn't give us the addresses that they were taking lead and copper samples from."

That operator, Michael O'Malley, was fired by the state last year "because he was really impeding our progress on some of the data we were trying to get," he said. O'Malley could not be reached for comment.

EGLE last month appointed a new clean water public advocate and last week announced the creation of a drinking water advisory panel. On Monday, the state health department said it was providing free blood lead testing and home services for residents to help them address sources of lead in their homes.

"We think there's an important sense of urgency, and that's why we're talking about these action steps that are being taken immediately," said Clark, referencing bottled water distribution as well as going door-to-door to distribute water filters. "One of the most important pieces is that this is a historical challenge for us in Michigan. We are very open to understanding what we could have done better, how can we learn from this."

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.

EGLE should have told residents three years ago "that the water was bad, that it was not drinkable," said the Rev. Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, who has been complaining for years to city and state officials.

"That was the No. 1 thing that they could have come out and said, 'Do not drink the water.' But they failed to do so," Pinkney said. "They are in denial. You never hear them talk about how bad the water is ... in three years. That's criminal."

EPA officials have declined to address specifics of the emergency petition, filed Sept. 9, or whether the state should be held accountable. But they said they share the concerns of Benton Harbor residents about lead in their water.

"EPA’s highest priority is protecting the people of Benton Harbor from lead exposure in drinking water," said Elizabeth Cisar, a senior adviser in EPA’s Office of Water. "EPA is committed to working with the state of Michigan, providing oversight and technical support to ensure all residents have access to bottled water and/or using filters properly."

Corrosion control controversy

The water treatment plant in Benton Harbor that went into service in 1927 has had its share of problems as described in the state's 2018 Sanitary Survey review.

The sanitary survey found eight "significant deficiencies," especially in areas of the treatment and distribution system. The maintenance of the water plant and distribution system components was "severely lacking," according to the review. 

Unlike Flint, where the state's environmental department did not urge applying proper corrosion-control chemicals to the city's new, more acidic river water source in 2014, Benton Harbor gets its water from nearby Lake Michigan. And it hasn't changed its water source. The situation has puzzled state experts.

"Any amount of lead in drinking water concerns me," Oswald said. "Benton Harbor was an interesting case. There was no source change, there was no treatment change. It's one of those things where you scratch your head and wonder, 'Well, what happened? Why are you seeing these elevated numbers all of a sudden?'"

While he regrets that Benton Harbor has had three years of lead exceedances, the state did all it could, Oswald said. The city's treatment plant, he said, was not originally designed to have corrosion control treatment injected into the system.

Environmental groups said in the emergency petition to the EPA that the state's use of corrosion inhibitor was used without studying it — a recommendation made by the EPA but rejected by state officials as too costly and lengthy. 

Oswald said that type of thorough EPA corrosion control study would take years and is expensive. "The concern was, we had an ALE (action level exceedance). We wanted to get some level of corrosion control inhibitor in the system as soon as we possibly could and be conservative about how we did it," he said. 

That approach included a smaller study and using a corrosion control for a year from March 2019 to March 2020 that "we realized it wasn't as effective as we had hoped it would be," Oswald said. "And we changed the blend."

"I think it is working. It just takes time to passivate and stabilize a system," he said.

But the EPA intervention petition said Benton Harbor began a corrosion control study in August — 30 months after the state ordered the city to use corrosion control treatment that wasn't working. One of the bidders for that study noted "the $50,000 budget is not enough to perform an adequate study," according to the petition.

The petition also claims EGLE violated the state and federal lead and copper rule by delaying "a fully compliant corrosion control study."

The EPA guidance manual states that if a water system uses a polyphosphate, it should be studied, especially in a system with lead service lines, Betanzo said. 

"It's like right there as clear as day, and EGLE rejected that advice and chose to do it their own way," she said.

Trust broken

City resident Carmela Patton, 43, said EGLE "has really failed us" and isn't convinced state officials can be trusted to get the lead out of the drinking water.

"They never told us the water was unsafe," said Patton, who said her skin was starting to itch because of the water. "You know how Flint blew up? We didn't get blown up (with the attention) like that. It's heartbreaking, it's sad. It makes you feel unappreciated as a person, like nobody cares."

The state and others were also slow to inform the Benton Harbor public about how to properly use the filters to maximize their effectiveness, resulting in residents not placing them on their faucets, according to residents and environmentalists. 

The state has been trying to rebuild trust by distributing bottled water — more than 33,000 cases since Sept. 30 through Wednesday, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. And nearly 2,600 filters have been passed out since 2019 with roughly 3,000 municipal water customers, state officials said. 

Oswald admitted, in hindsight, just giving out water filters and making public announcements "may not have been enough."

Regina Strong, the environmental justice public advocate for EGLE who has been leading the filter distribution effort in Benton Harbor, admitted to some mistakes with distribution but "now we're moving forward full blast."

"There were filters available, but access was an issue for some people, how it was distributed, where it was, so we're trying to work to correct all that moving forward," Strong said.

The removal of lead lines, environmentalists contend, would help eliminate the need for corrosion treatments, but the replacement effort has been slow. To date, 219 lines have been replaced with 100 more expected by next April. There are an estimated 2,400 lead lines in the city.

Clark, EGLE's director, said there hasn't been enough investment in water infrastructure around the state and especially in Benton Harbor. Whitmer pledged to get all the lead pipes removed in five years or less, which some say isn't fast enough.

Whitmer recently signed into law a $10 million appropriation for lead pipe removal in Benton Harbor. The state is budgeting $20 million for the five-year removal process.

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said meetings are underway to get millions of more dollars in a bid to get the lead pipes out in months instead of years in a partnership with the city and state.

"I'm not the official that's going to play the blame game. My focus is on solutions," Muhammad said. "Because this problem, it was inherited. I can't speak for EGLE. I'm working with EGLE. And if there were mistakes made on their end, then they have to be accountable and responsible for that."

Twitter: @leonardnfleming