Residents in Benton Harbor have suffered severe health problems because of lead in their water. Years later, they’re finally getting new pipes.
UPDATE (Oct. 14): Gov. Whitmer officially issued an executive director that all available state resources should be mobilized in solving the clean water crisis in Benton Harbor. The order, in addition to promising an abundance of clean water delivered to Benton Harbor, reduces the timeframe for replacing lead service lines from five years to 18 months. Since this update, the replacement of lead service lines has begun.
UPDATE (Oct. 6): The state has officially urged residents of Benton Harbor to use only bottled water for cooking, drinking, and brushing teeth. Previously, local authorities had passed out water filters, but now the federal government is reviewing their effectiveness.
BENTON HARBOR, Mich.—Rev. Edward Pinkney rolls out of bed and begins his day at 6 a.m., spry and spirited. For the past few years, the 72-year-old hasn’t had much time to keep up with his hobbies, like watching the local sports teams. Instead, another day of physical exertion awaits him, so he musters all the energy he can and puts on a smile.
Last week, he and the Benton Harbor Community Water Council distributed 1,500 cases of bottled water—45,000 pounds worth, for context—to residents in the Southwestern Michigan town of 10,000. This week, he’ll be doing the same. In fact, what’s been his weekly forecast for the past few years is likely to continue.
Why? If you haven’t heard, that’s why Pinkney’s knocking; Benton Harbor’s water supply is contaminated with lead reported at higher levels than was the case in Flint, whose water crisis from 2014 to 2019 crippled the city and drew attention to environmental justice issues in impoverished, minority communities.
Government officials have confirmed the presence of lead in Benton Harbor pipelines for the last three years, though residents reported malodorous and oddly colored water for years further back. Official estimates suggest a resolution is years in the offing.
“Joe Biden, even he needs to know about the city of Benton Harbor,” Pinkney said. “He needs to know there’s a major problem here.”
As if his days couldn’t get any more busy, recently, Pinkney’s also been taking calls from media outlets and filing petitions, trying to get someone to hear him out. Benton Harbor residents are suffering, dying even, and children are facing life-altering effects as the lead leaches from their blood streams into the rest of their bodies, organs, and bones.
“We feel like we’ve been deserted,” he said.
Pinkney is a self-declared activist and has a history in his community of spats with political leaders. But just about everything he’s said so far has turned out to be true, even prophetic, when it comes to the water crisis.
Staying clear of the city’s tap water was gospel before it ever became guidance. In 2017, before the water was confirmed as toxic, 59% of Benton Harbor residents said they drank bottled water every day, according to a survey conducted at the time measuring an unrelated topic. The No. 1 reason they cited was safety.
Pinkney was the first one to scientifically examine the water samples when a churchgoer came to him with a yellow, murky glass of nasty-looking liquid that came from her faucet. He advised her to stop drinking the water, and when city officials wouldn’t test it, he sent it to a University of Michigan lab himself. The test results returned and confirmed lead, he said.
Across six testing cycles spanning hundreds of households over the course of three years, Benton Harbor’s water has tested positive for lead at levels of 22 to 32 parts per billion, with no noticeable recent trend of decline. The federal government has stated that anything greater than 15 parts per billion requires intervention, though environmental activists point out that even trace amounts can lead to harmful health effects.
These numbers reflect higher amounts of exposure than the average, but they don’t track the highest either, Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, said. One resident’s lead count clocked in at 60 times greater than the federally accepted level.
Dr. Don Tynes, a medical doctor at the Benton Harbor Health Center, said that lead poisoning is rampant in the community. He’s seen the symptoms firsthand.
Children, he said, are more likely to wind up with learning disabilities, like ADHD. Adults, he said, are more likely to have dialysis and kidney failure. This isn’t a conspiracy theory. The kidney failures are medically coined “lead-related nephrotoxicity,” but that’s just the beginning. Lead impacts all of the body’s organs, and can lead to mental decline and fogs in adults.
Lead poisoning is so common in his patients that Tynes tests for it immediately on sight of symptoms—abdominal pain or memory loss, for example. Often, he said, these results come back positive.
He’s working to make lead screenings and conversations free. Walk up and get a test, just to know, is his plan.
“Lead in the blood means there has been exposure,” Tynes said.
Clean water advocates have long said that no level of lead is acceptable. While people might swap in bottled water for drinking, chances are, they’re still brushing their teeth, bathing, and even cleaning with lead-infused water.
Update: The state has officially urged residents of Benton Harbor to use only bottled water for cooking, drinking, and brushing teeth. Previously, local authorities had passed out water filters, but now the federal government is evaluating their effectiveness.
Activists are especially keen to warn people to avoid lead water for food preparation. Lead cannot be boiled out of water.
“If there’s any lead, that is a problem,” Tynes said.
A parishioner of Pinkney’s recently adopted a dog, a Great Dane. At seven-months-old, it died. The veterinarian, Pinkney said, attributed the death to lead, which the dog had taken in every day in its water bowl.
Striking Similarities to Flint… With a Few Differences
If you’re wondering how Benton Harbor progressed to this dire point, its story is so common to Michigan cities that it reads like a cliche.
Benton Harbor peaked at the height of manufacturing. When industry left, so did city funds, and the town bowed to urban decline. As suburbanization flourished throughout Michigan, white residents in particular abandoned the city, leaving for more desirable, affluent areas on the nearby lakeshore.
In 2011, neighboring communities decided to sever ties to Benton Harbor’s water authority, purportedly for financial reasons and to own their supply. Benton Charter Township and St. Joseph nearby have their own water authority and both have performed tests since lead was discovered in Benton Harbor’s 100-year-old pipes. Despite having pipes of a similar age, their water has remained pristinely clean.
“From a historical perspective, the water systems have been used to kind of leapfrog development and enable and expand white suburbs,” Liz Kirkwood, executive director of the Michigan-based For Love of Water (FLOW) advocacy group, said.
At the same time, the study referenced earlier found that Benton Harbor residents paid more for their water than nearby areas.
Benton Harbor is a city battered with economic disinvestment and saddled with legacy costs it struggles to shoulder. The city had a state-appointed emergency manager who came in and took over operations, cutting programs drastically, via a since-disavowed state program.
The city has also previously been in the spotlight for poor school performance. Bad grades could be the result of many factors; lead exposure is one possibility, Tynes said.
Pinkney and Tynes say that city leadership, with several exceptions, has not stepped up to face the crisis.
Leaders were behind in responding to residents’ complaints about the water, as Pinkney set the wheels in motion, and at times even dismissed residents’ concerns, even encouraging them that the water was safe.
Between 2015 and 2018, from when residents suspected the water was bad to when the government said it was, Pinkney said he felt like he was shouting into the void.
And when funds did come in to replace pipes, initially, city officials benchmarked a timeline of 20 years for remediation. A whole generation’s future would have been imperiled in the meanwhile, Tynes said, as children with lead exposure face lifelong difficulties.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer intervened and reduced the timeline to five years, at first, then 18 months. Pinkney hopes it can be completed within one, given that it’s a small city.
Update: Gov. Whitmer, in an executive order on Oct. 14, reduced the timeframe for replacing lead service lines in the city from five years to 18 months.
“She has to be given credit for that,” Tynes said.
The governor and state have not declared the Benton Harbor water crisis a state of emergency to date.
After lead levels saw the light of day in 2018, the city began reviewing its water quality every six months, instead of every three years. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) implemented lead contamination control measures in the pipes. But levels have remained consistently high.
Now, EGLE is undertaking a complete study to see what may need to be done differently.
In a petition cosigned by 20 community and environmental groups asking for intervention from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), residents contest that the process should have been reversed. EGLE first should have conducted the study to diagnose the problem, then administered the treatment, Leonard, a signee, said. As EGLE first experimented with solutions, three years later, effective control measures have yet to be established.
The question on everyone’s mind surrounding Benton Harbor is a not-so-unspoken taboo topic. Would this have happened to a majority-white city?
“If Benton Harbor were 90% caucasian, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Pinkney said.
Sure enough, Michigan has been the site of two catastrophic water crises where lead has fused with drinking water. Flint, the more famous example, fit a similar, albeit larger, profile, as a majority Black, economically decimated city that once fell under emergency financial management.
Benton Harbor is a city that’s more Black and even poorer than Flint. Flint is about 10 times larger than Benton Harbor, with a Congressional seat and political sway. Benton Harbor has little fame to its name, besides being headquarters to appliance company Whirlpool.
In Benton Harbor, 45% of people have incomes below the poverty line, and 90% of residents are Black.
The petition, in fact, lists a counterfactual: Clarksburg, West Virginia. The EPA issued a mandatory order of compliance under emergency circumstances for Clarksburg, a predominantly white town which had high levels reported at three test sites. Far more locations in Benton Harbor have exceeded the federal threshold every year but with no EPA mandate.
“I think you can very clearly connect what’s going on now in Benton Harbor with their drinking water to its long, troubled, and very disturbing history of racial segregation and discrimination,” Leonard said.
While Flint became a calling card for environmental justice, Tynes says Benton Harbor’s an even better example of what’s happening across the United States. The health disparities Black residents in Benton Harbor have are in no way atypical.
“I think part of our physical for all our children should be to look for lead,” Tynes said.
Now, turning to state and national officials, Benton Harbor residents are asking for justice. They want the officials under whose watch this happened held accountable. But more importantly, they want the lead out.
What’s Been Done (and What Hasn’t)
On October 6, 2021, the state increased the availability of free bottled water to Benton Harbor residents, following media reports, the petition to the EPA, and local calls to action. Available pickup sites and dates are available at Michigan.gov/MiLeadSafe as more than 15,000 cases of water are shipped.
The EPA is currently evaluating the effectiveness of filters on Benton Harbor’s water. The state Department of Health and Human Services has stated this is out of an abundance of caution, but local leaders have had concerns about filters since they first received them in 2019. Filters can expire, for one, Pinkney said, and many people don’t use them correctly; now that they’re being reviewed, local residents doubt their effectiveness even more.
As the EPA conducts the study, the state of Michigan is encouraging residents to only use bottled water for cooking, drinking, and brushing teeth.
To date, local government has delivered 4,500 cases, according to the press release, seemingly fewer than what Pinkney and the Benton Harbor Community Water Council have. Pinkney said he stows 2,000 cases in his church’s basement and replenishes his supply every two weeks or so.
“Protecting the health and safety of Benton Harbor residents is a top priority,” Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said.
In October 2020, Benton Harbor secured a grant worth millions from the EPA to begin taking out lead pipes. The state of Michigan also contributed several million to the effort.
Through Michigan’s newest budget, the city will receive $10 million to replace pipes, as part of a larger package for clean water. The state also set up an emergency drinking water fund, which is designed to provide clean bottled water and filters in the meantime. Kirkwood, of the Traverse City-based FLOW, said this type of fund is the first of its kind she’s heard of, but that long-term the goal should be to prevent problems before stopgap measures are necessary.
Gov. Whitmer asked for an even greater investment in Benton Harbor, but the Republican-led legislature trimmed down the final piece of legislation. Still, residents hope the city will have the funds to replace all pipelines.
If President Biden’s infrastructure bill passes, difference-making money will be set aside for clean water infrastructure across the country. It will be the nation’s largest infrastructure package in decades.
Kirkwood’s long-term hope is that all groundwater water becomes public property, which currently is not the case, so that bottled water companies cannot profit by going around government. In this scenario, people would have ownership of their local water, and water companies couldn’t gouge the prices. FLOW has drafted model legislation to these ends, but only parts of the bill have been touched on so far.
“Investing in water infrastructure is the foundation of all society,” Kirkwood said. “It’s what makes or breaks a society.”
Pinkney isn’t giving up his call to action just yet. He’s learned that Benton Harbor has to fight for itself. In his words, “the cavalry isn’t coming.”
In the years to come, as it stands now, Benton Harbor residents will still be drinking water with lead particles. Even schools’ tap water is not safe to drink. Years can be a long time, especially for children whose lifelong health depends on it.
Head to Benton Harbor, you’ll find Pinkney going door to door with his own armada of family members and unpaid volunteers, all during a pandemic. This community means everything to him, and he’s doing everything he can to make it lead-free.
“The people inside this town are human beings,” Pinkney said. “They deserve clean drinking water. And there is something you can do.”
For information on donations, people can go the bhbanco.org. Pinkney says all money will go directly to bottled water and encourages anyone with questions to call him at (269) 369-8257.