Kevin Stack with the Berrien County Road Department fills up jugs with non-potable water for Elliot Napier in the Benton Harbor High School parking lot Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, in Benton Harbor, Mich. The water system in Benton Harbor has tested for elevated levels of lead for three consecutive years. In response, residents have been told to drink and cook with bottled water and the state has promised to spend millions replacing lead service lines. Associated Press Photo
Kevin Stack with the Berrien County Road Department fills up jugs with non-potable water for Elliot Napier in the Benton Harbor High School parking lot Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, in Benton Harbor, Mich. The water system in Benton Harbor has tested for elevated levels of lead for three consecutive years. In response, residents have been told to drink and cook with bottled water and the state has promised to spend millions replacing lead service lines.

Benton Harbor residents don’t have clean water or trust in the system. This reverend shares what they need to overcome Michigan’s next water crisis. 

BENTON HARBOR, Mich.—In Benton Harbor, the Rev. Edward Pinkney says there is a deep-seated problem looming. 

No, it’s not the financial concerns that have plagued the local school district in the small city, which is home to fewer than 10,000 people, according to the 2019 census. It was just 10 years ago that Benton Harbor Area Schools reported being nearly $20 million in debt. 

And no, it’s not the ongoing water crisis—although the elevated lead levels reported across the city over the past three years is the root of the cause. 

According to the 73-year-old Pinkney, Benton Harbor’s latest concern is trust. Trust that the water coming from their faucets is safe, and trust that officials will do right by them in addressing the problem. 

“They feel that they have been deceived for at least three years,” Pinkney told The ‘Gander Wednesday during a Zoom interview. He’d just gotten back from delivering water to residents across the city, which is just over 4 square miles. 

“What they’re talking about right now is that, we just don’t trust you,” Pinkney continued, referring to Benton Harbor residents’ feelings toward local and state officials. “Let’s say that the water, for some reason, being tested turned out to be good, I don’t think the community here would accept anything that they say at this time.”

Such concern is to be expected when certain rights are no longer available, like the right to clean drinking water. 

“It probably goes back even before 2015 or so,” Pinkney said. “But at that time, there was no documentation.”

‘I’m Hoping That the Governor Will Use This Model’

The water supply in Benton Harbor is contaminated with lead. Tests on the water coming out of some of the faucets in the city have reportedly revealed lead levels higher than those reported in Flint at the beginning of the Flint water crisis. 

While state and local officials have confirmed the presence of lead in Benton Harbor water lines for the past three years, residents have reported abnormalities with their water dating farther back. 

The Benton Harbor situation has drawn parallels to the water crisis in Flint, where a city of nearly 100,000 residents was made vulnerable to lead poisoning when the city switched its water supply to the Flint River. 

But Michigan’s latest water crisis has presented itself in new, unique ways, too. In Benton Harbor, people say the crisis has existed for a long time. As far back as 2017, the majority of residents in Benton Harbor said they drank bottled water every day, according to a survey done at the time. The top reason why, survey takers said? Safety. 

In the time since Benton Harbor’s water situation became more well known, local and state officials have taken temporary measures to provide residents with water. Thousands of cases of water were delivered to local groups for distribution. Weekend water giveaways have become the norm in recent weeks, inspiring shades of Flint. 

But even this has caused issues, Pinkney said, as people from outside the Benton Harbor community would come to the water giveaways for a free handout. He said he suggests the state change things up and go door-to-door for water distribution, like he and his group, the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, does. 

“We started going door to door, delivering strictly to people that lived in Benton Harbor,” he said. “That’s how we did it. And I’m hoping that the governor will use this model to do pretty much the same thing.”

Days after the Benton Harbor water crisis grabbed national attention, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she wanted all possible state resources to be utilized to provide clean drinking water for residents. 

“Protecting the health and safety of Benton Harbor residents is a top priority,” said Elizabeth Hertel, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “We’ve listened to the community’s concerns and out of an abundance of caution, we are recommending that residents use bottled water for cooking, drinking and brushing teeth.”

‘If We Don’t Get it Right, It’s Gonna Get Worse’

With one water crisis after another, it might be easy to say Michigan has a water problem. In reality, Michigan has an overdue infrastructure problem that has progressed to the point where it has created other fundamental issues. 

That’s why in order to fix the issues we’re seeing in Benton Harbor and Flint, upgrades need to be made, pipe replacements are required, and those things cost money and take time. But a historic infrastructure bill signed Monday by President Joe Biden addresses one of those issues: the money. 

The president, in Michigan Wednesday, spoke on those needs, referencing the lead pipes that have delivered toxic water to thousands of residents across the state. 

“This law’s going to start to replace 100% of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines,” Biden said. “Every child in Michigan and across America can turn on the faucet and drink clean water. Ten million homes have those lead pipes going in them, and 400,000 schools. Tens of thousands of plumbers and pipefitters are going to get to work in good-paying jobs and help make the nation healthier.” 

Michigan is set to receive the funding to replace lead pipes where necessary and improve the overall water infrastructure across the state, ensuring that the water flowing from the faucets of families in every community is clean.

In an interview with The ‘Gander, Whitmer said the bill was essential to addressing these water issues, not only in Michigan but across the nation. 

“Because of the man-made crisis in Flint, we’ve been investigating and testing water more aggressively than other places,” Whitmer said. “But the fact of the matter is, old infrastructures are reality in communities all across this country, and that’s why the feds really need to prioritize resources so we can replace pipes in Benton Harbor.

“But there will be other communities that we find out about, and that’s why these resources are so critical so that we can do our job of keeping people safe.”

The timetable for when the infrastructure bill funds will be ready for use remains unclear as the bill was signed on Monday. But in the meantime, people like Pinkney are on the ground, leading the charge to provide clean drinking water to those who don’t have it. 

“This thing is bad,” he said. “And if we don’t get it right, it’s gonna get worse. I guess that’s my message, loud and clear to them.”