Not Just Lead: Why Water Quality Questions Continue in Benton Harbor

By Isaac Constans

April 25, 2022

As Benton Harbor water cleanup continues, activists want more assurance that tap water is safe to drink through filters. State officials say it is.

Need to Know

  • An EPA report last fall found numerous problems with Benton Harbor’s water treatment aside from lead.
  • Most of those errors have been corrected, but residents want assurances that the water is safe to drink.
  • Lead line replacements continue and are expected to be completed by spring 2023. 

BENTON HARBOR, Mich.—It’s not just lead that Benton Harbor residents and water quality activists are worried about. During a press conference earlier in the week, advocates and residents asked state officials to release more information about the overall quality of Benton Harbor water, a serious concern for the city that, amid financial hardship, has faced decaying infrastructure.

As the state works to replace lead lines, advocates argue more needs to be done to inform the public of progress on additional problems identified in the water treatment system.

“The state has essentially waffled on the simple and essential question of whether Benton Harbor water is safe to drink,” Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, said. 

A fall investigation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uncovered numerous deficiencies in the Benton Harbor water treatment process. It cited years of disinvestment as the root cause of the problem.

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State, local, and federal officials have been working to fix a number of concerns, ranging from bacterial build-up to failing equipment. In a follow-up report released in February, the EPA identified lingering concerns having to do with notifying residents, according to Michigan Radio, but unrelated to water quality.

Officials aren’t raising the alarm, however. Spokespeople for the EPA and Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy said to the Detroit News that Benton Harbor water has remained at the lead action level, past the point of safe drinking without a filter, but meets other standards set by the EPA. 

Still, the state continues to make bottled water available and free to residents as per EPA recommendations. Lead filters are also free to residents through the Berrien County Health Department. 

“Filters are great and necessary for reducing lead exposure when there are no issues at the water treatment plant,” said Elin Betanzo, a water engineer and former EPA official. “However, these filters are only certified to reduce lead, not microbial contaminants.”

To date, the state has taken out a quarter of Benton Harbor’s lead lines. A recent budget supplemental secured the remaining funds necessary to replace 100% of Benton Harbor lead service lines, the completion date for which is targeted in spring 2023. 

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