Benton Harbour, Mich. — During the three years that officials learned of an alarming amount of runoff from taps in Benton Harbor, Michigan, they sent notices, distributed filters and tried to improve water treatment. But problems persisted, and some residents said they had never heard of the risks of toxic water coming from their taps.
Now, in scenes reminiscent of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, state officials have told residents of Benton Harbor not to drink, cook, or brush their teeth with tap water. On Thursday, elected officials came to the city promising help. And so many cars have turned out for bottled water that it has caused traffic jams, a rarity in a place with 9,100 residents.
“It’s terrifying to see my city like this,” said Rosetta Valentine, 63, as she directed traffic at a water distribution site where some people lined up for about an hour before the event started.
Residents of Benton Harbor see parallels between their plight and the water crisis, which unfolded less than three hours on the highway in Flint, which is also the majority-black city where a change in water source in 2014 caused residents to die. Despite repeated assurances, the contaminated water had to be drunk. that it was safe. In Benton Harbour, where thousands of homes are connected to the water system by lead pipes, efforts to reduce problematic lead readings using corrosion control have so far failed, and officials have recently become concerned that 2019 The lead-removal filters given to the residents may not work.
The problems in Benton Harbor and Flint are extreme examples of a widespread, national failure of water infrastructure, which experts say requires massive and urgent investment to solve. Across the country, in cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh and Clarksburg, W.Va., Americans are drinking alarming amounts of brain-damaging lead as agencies struggle to modernize water treatment plants and lead connecting buildings. Attempts to replace service lines begin. Water system. Health officials say there is no safe level of lead exposure.
“We are basically living off the investments of our grandparents and grandparents in our water infrastructure and not dealing with these festering problems,” said Eric D., of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Olson, an advocacy group that pushed for rapid action to address pollution in Benton Harbor. He said the lead problem was “part of this ticking time bomb that we have under the lead pipes, water mains exploding.”
President Biden has prioritized replacing lead pipes, and the infrastructure bill currently lying in Congress would set aside billions of dollars to address other problems with the nation’s water systems. The bill, which has some Republican support, includes about $55 billion to improve water systems, though other Republicans have expressed concerns about the cost.
But amid uncertainty about whether that bill and a broader domestic policy package will pass, and how much money such small communities will ultimately get, the prospect of Congress’s help remains remote for many in Benton Harbor.
“It’s too far and they’re going to do what they do anyway – I can’t sit here and sweat,” said Rev Edward Pinckney, a pastor in Benton Harbor who was delivering bottled water to residents’ doors, And who said he blamed a Democrat, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, for fixing the problem.
Many US cities face serious water problems. In Newark, NJ, where lead problems were allowed to escalate, a years-long effort to replace the lead pipes is nearly complete. But lead is only one of the growing issues in local water systems. In Wichita, Kan., hundreds of thousands of people were placed under a boil water advisory this month after a decade-old pipe burst. In Jackson, Miss., a winter storm this year froze pipes and put much of the city under a boil advisory for weeks. And in parts of the American West, prolonged droughts have exacerbated water shortages, forcing farmers and other customers to make painful decisions about how much they can use.
The American Society of Civil Engineers this year gave the nation’s water infrastructure a C-minus grade, describing the national system as “aging and depleting” despite recent efforts to invest in improvements. Emily Fenstra, the group’s managing director for Government Relations and Infrastructure Initiatives, said the legislation in Congress provided an opportunity to make up for lost time fixing crumbling systems, especially in smaller towns that have had changes. There may be a lack of resources or expertise to do so. My.
“This is an urgent problem: it is something that we have a huge opportunity to address right now with this infrastructure bill,” Ms. Feinstra said. “As soon as we can do less work down the road, costs add up quickly.”
In Benton Harbor, state officials said on Thursday they would continue distributing free bottled water, and Ms Whitmer, who is up for re-election next year, called for replacement of key pipes connecting homes to water systems. The target has been set for 18 months. That process would cost about $30 million and was once expected to take years. But the water problem in Benton Harbor is nothing new, and questions are being raised as to why city, state and federal officials haven’t taken more aggressive action sooner.
Mayor Marcus Muhammad said, “If I had a magic wand, I would have solved every problem in the city of Benton Harbor.” “However, the government doesn’t work that way. The city of Benton Harbor is a creature of the state, and the state is a creature of the federal government.”
Asked whether the steps taken Thursday should have happened when officials learned about the city’s high levels three years ago, Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said she couldn’t say.
“To be honest, these should have been replaced years ago, and we shouldn’t even be in the position we are in, but we are,” said Ms Hertel, who said the proposed federal infrastructure fund would help falter. Will do systems across Michigan.
Michigan’s lieutenant governor, Garlin Gilchrist II, said during a visit to Benton Harbor on Thursday that the state has been working with the city since 2018 on water issues, but “those efforts have yet to fully address the challenge ” He said the decisions to provide bottled water and to accelerate the lead line change were “a fitting enhancement of that response”.
Benton Harbor, which sits across Lake Michigan from Chicago, has a construction history, a championship golf course, and a city showing signs of revival. But the city has endured decades of disinvestment and hardship.
Some residents said they saw what had happened in Flint several years ago and began to worry about water quality. Some people in Benton Harbor stopped drinking tap water a long time ago. Some had taste complaints. Others became concerned in recent years as test after test came back, showing Benton Harbor to contain 15 parts per billion of lead in 10 percent of samples above federal action levels.
But other residents, like Michael Johnson, who used to watch as cars for gifts of water from their porches, are only now finding out about the risks of their tap water. Problems have persisted for years, but the response has increased dramatically in recent weeks. Last month, local and national environmental groups petitioned the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which last year gave the city a grant to begin replacing lead pipes to intervene more aggressively in Benton Harbor. Ms. Whitmer pledged millions in state funds to fix the lead lines. Then warned not to drink tap water.
“I’m kind of scared,” said Mr. Johnson, 50. “I’ve been drinking a lot of juice the day before yesterday, trying to stay off the tap.”
About 45 percent of residents in Benton Harbor live in poverty, and the school system is faltering. Like Flint, Benton Harbor spent time under state-appointed emergency management. And exactly two years ago, Ms. Whitmer tried to close Benton Harbor High School before backtracking amid protests.
For many in the city, water is just another outrage. And some can’t help but wonder if the population of Benton Harbor was rich or white the situation would have been different. Across the bridge in the majority white city of St. Joseph, there is no such water emergency.
“Some people still live where blacks had their fountain of water and whites had them,” says Duane L. Sitts II, protem mayor of Benton Harbor and pastor of the church that hosted the bottled water, said. “So what’s the difference in this situation now?”
It’s all horrifying, said 26-year-old Erica Moss, a mother of four who recently began buying bottled water after hearing about increased levels of lead on Facebook. Lead is known to damage the brain and nervous system, impair growth, and contribute to behavioral problems with particularly severe effects in children.
“It’s always a problem going on here – it’s always something going on in Benton Harbour,” said Ms Moss, who expressed doubts that a fix will materialize any time soon. “I was shocked, but not shocked at the same time.”