Michigan city on edge as lead-water crisis persists

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BENTON HARBOR— Shortly after sunrise on a recent Saturday in Benton Harbor, Michigan, residents began lining up for free bottled water so they could drink and cook without fear of the high levels of lead in city tap water.

Free water distribution sites are part of life in the predominantly black city, where nearly half of the estimated 10,000 residents live below the poverty line. For three years, tests of its public water system revealed high levels of lead.

It takes time to wait for bottled water, and some residents are wondering why, in a state that recently faced the Flint water crisis, the problem was not resolved sooner.

“It’s tiring,” said Rhonda Nelson, queuing at a site run by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor.

“I understand what Flint was going through, I really understand it,” she said.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has pledged to spend millions of dollars to replace the city’s main service lines within 18 months – a breakneck pace for a process that often takes decades. For now, residents have been warned not to cook, drink or prepare formula with tap water.

Residents are concerned about what the high levels of lead mean for the health of their families. The problem is embarrassing and stressful. Drivers line up early at water distribution sites, keeping people away from work and families, and water should be used with care so that it does not run out. Queuing has consequences – idling uses up gasoline drivers who have to pay to refuel.

Exposure to lead can slow cognitive development, especially in young children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and federal officials say no amount of lead in drinking water is considered safe for their consumption. In recent months, activists have pushed for more aggressive action and the state has stepped up its response.

Some wonder if the problem would have been resolved more quickly if the residents of Benton Harbor were more like those of neighboring, predominantly white St. Joseph.

“Sometimes you just have to speak out against racism, and that’s what it feels like,” said Ambie Bell, handing out water to residents.

There are millions of aging underground lead lines connecting buildings to water pipes across the country, primarily in the Midwest, but also in other states like New Jersey and Massachusetts. Old pipes can become an urgent risk to public health. Newark, New Jersey, experienced prolonged lead water problems which led to the rapid replacement of thousands of lead pipes. The high test results in Clarksburg, West Virginia, sounded the alarm earlier this year. The word Flint is now synonymous with lead water problems.

Replacing major service lines is costly, straining tight local budgets. Infrastructure and reconciliation bills pending in Congress include billions to deal with leadline replacement which activists say could make a significant difference.

Flint’s lead water problem began when he switched his water source to the Flint River without proper treatment, corroding the lead pipes. But Benton Harbor’s water source, Lake Michigan, is considered safe, and many other places find water there.

“Our problem is clearly our own infrastructure,” said City Manager Ellis Mitchell.

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency identified a series of violations at the Benton Harbor water facility – issues so serious that the city must consider relinquishing ownership, the EPA said.

“The people of Benton Harbor have suffered for too long,” EPA administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

Water systems sometimes produce high test results, but in Benton Harbor authorities have been unable to bring them down. The long-term solution is to replace some 2,400 pipes that may contain lead, state officials said.

After the Flint water crisis, Michigan tightened requirements for lead in drinking water in 2018, boasting that it passed the most protective law in the country and demanded replacement of old water pipes. lead service.

Local environmental groups and activists filed a petition on Benton Harbor in September with the EPA, calling for aggressive action.

Michigan officials say they have taken the issue seriously.

In 2019, local authorities offered Benton Harbor residents filters designed to reduce the amount of lead in drinking water. Eric Oswald, director of the state’s drinking water division, said at a hearing on the matter last month that officials were studying the filters to make sure they were working properly. They also worked on corrosion control to reduce lead entering water from pipes. While the overall lead sampling results are still too high, the proportion of high readings has declined, officials said.

EPA inspectors, however, hit the city for failing to notify water customers in their water bills of the problem.

Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and professor at Michigan State University who sounded the alarm bells about Flint, receives questions from parents about whether a developmental issue could be linked to lead in the water. However, it is extremely difficult to establish a link between an individual’s health problem and lead in water.

“This is why lead poisoning has eluded diagnosis, treatment and prevention for so long,” she said, adding that lead exposure is not safe for children and that ‘It’s too early to predict what the long-term impact might be. It can also depend on factors like poverty, which makes it particularly important to tackle the problem in cities like Benton Harbor, she said.

Sylvester Bownes, who wears a prosthesis on his right leg, said he had been drinking bottled water for years because he didn’t trust the water in Benton Harbor.

Pushing a cart full of cases of bottled water half a mile from his home, he said a ruptured water pipe temporarily cut off the public water supply, so without running water he had not only need bottled water for drinking, but essential needs like filling the toilet.

“Water is everything,” Bownes said. “It’s like gold.”

The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/environment


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