The next Flint? Groups call for EPA to intervene, provide safe water to Benton Harbor

Citing an ongoing risk of lead poisoning to residents of Benton Harbor through their public drinking water, 20 environmental and public advocacy organizations on Thursday filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, urging federal intervention to secure safe water supplies for the southwest Michigan city's nearly 10,000 residents.

"For at least three years, the people of Benton Harbor have been living with contaminated water. We urgently need safe, clean water right now — today," the Rev. Edward Pinkney, a faith leader in the community and president of the grassroots Benton Harbor Community Water Council, said in an online news conference.

As was the case with Flint's water crisis, which began in 2014, the excessive lead levels are believed to be coming from corroding, old, lead water pipes — either the city's old lead lines, the residential lines leading from the city system to home's taps, or both.

In Flint, the city switched from a Detroit water supply to Flint River water at the direction of then-Gov. Rick Snyder's administration, without using necessary water additives to deter lead corrosion from entering the water. It exposed the population to excessive lead levels in their drinking water for months. Michigan and other defendants are finalizing a more than $641 million settlement to class-action lawsuits stemming from the contamination.

Nicholas Leonard, executive director of the nonprofit Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, which helped spearhead the Benton Harbor petition to the EPA, said that since fall 2018, more than 60 homes in the city have tested for lead levels in their drinking water that exceed the federal government's lead action level of 15 parts per billion. One home tested for 889 parts per billion, nearly 60 times the federal safety limit.

"I'm still buying water," he said. "I was going to a family member's house to take showers — I felt like I was wearing out my welcome.

"There are still a lot of people here who are unaware of how much lead is in the water, and what effects it can have on you."

The state's response to the lead crisis in Benton Harbor has been inadequate, said Cyndi Roper, Michigan senior policy advocate for the environmental nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council's Safe Water Initiative.

"Michigan's response to this lead and water crisis has been plagued by delay and failure," she said. "Benton Harbor requires an all-hands-on-deck approach from the EPA, from Gov. Whitmer and from the state's congressional delegation."

In an email to the Free Press on Thursday, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy spokesman Scott Dean said the agency "has been working diligently" with the city to reduce lead in the drinking water.

The city installed corrosion control treatment technology at its water plant in March 2019, Dean said. EGLE helped Benton Harbor secure a $5.9 million EPA grant for lead line replacement and a corrosion control study that's underway, and the city has begun the process of replacing an estimated 6,000 water service lines, many of which are suspected to be lead, he said.

The next Flint? Groups call for EPA to intervene, provide safe water to Benton Harbor

At the EGLE's request, the city also has increased the monitoring of lead and copper in drinking water.

Benton Harbor City Manager Ellis Mitchell did not return Free Press messages Thursday.

Leonard didn't dispute the actions the state and local governments have taken. But the facts remain: Lead has tested at excessive levels for at least three years, and residents are still drinking the water.

"That's why we think this is an emergency — because we don't think there's been an adequate response at the state level," he said.

Efforts to distribute faucet water filtration systems by local health officials also have been lacking, Pinkney said.

"Our water department, they have been supplying water filters to our community. (But) they have failed our community," he said. "They've failed to educate people about the water filters. They've failed to even help put them on the faucet. We went to numerous homes and found that the water filter was sitting on their sink. They didn't have the knowledge, the senior citizens, to put it on."

There's recent precedent for the EPA using its emergency powers under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act to take action in a community with high lead levels in its water. EPA in Julyissued an emergency administrative order in Clarksburg, West Virginia, directing the community's water board to identify homes and businesses with lead service lines and provide an alternative source of drinking water or filters certified to remove lead to all customers who may be impacted by the lead exposure.

Leonard noted that in Clarksburg, only a few sites tested for excessive lead levels, and there was concern over a lack of data about more widespread problems. In Benton Harbor, the problem has been known for years. He noted that about 92% of Clarksburg's residents are white, while more than 85% of Benton Harbor's are Black.

"Benton Harbor is an environmental justice community," he said.

The EGLE is urging Benton Harbor residents to contact the Berrien County Health Department for a free faucet water filter if they don't yet have one; to flush the water in their pipes each morning before using it for drinking or cooking; to clean faucet aerators, and to cook with and drink water only from the cold-water tap, not the hot-water tap.

The EPA has received the petition to intervene in Benton Harbor, and is "carefully considering the issues and concerns raised by this community," spokesman Tim Carroll said.

He noted Benton Harbor was one of 10 communities to participate in roundtable discussions with the EPA highlighting the experience of the cities with lead in drinking water as part of the EPA’s review of the Lead and Copper Rule revisions.

Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021 or