Years after Flint, how do Michigan residents still drink water that has toxic levels of lead?

Little did Stacey Branscumb know that something was wrong with the water in his Benton Harbor, Michigan home until a local religious leader, Reverend Edward Pinkney, warned him that several families in his neighborhood had found dangerous levels of lead in their faucets. After that, Branscumb wondered if his home was also affected – this would explain that his pets became sick and, in some cases, died unexpectedly.

Branscumb had its water tested in 2019 and found a high lead content. The next year its water was tested high again. Then in June of that year the tests came back and showed a lead concentration of 469 parts per billion (ppb) – nearly 32 times higher than the federal limit of 15 ppb.

“He always had a high lead value every year, but this time it was ridiculous,” said Pinkney. “As soon as we looked at Stacey’s water, we knew immediately that there was a big problem.”

Benton Harbor residents have had high levels of lead in their drinking water for at least three years. However, still nothing has been done to correct the problem. The water in Branscumb and its neighbors’ homes is still inedible today, with lead levels comparable to that in Flint, Michigan seven years ago.

To force action on this issue, 20 environmental and interest groups filed a petition with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) earlier this month, citing an “immediate and significant threat to public health”. Lead exposure in children can lead to long-term health effects, from brain and nervous system damage to learning and behavior problems. Adults can experience high blood pressure, joint and abdominal pain, and miscarriages.

Water sample test results in Benton Harbor, Michigan this year. Resident Stacey Branscumb’s house marked in yellow is 32 times the federal limit.
Courtesy Edward Pinkney

The petition calls on the federal government to provide clean water to the 10,000 residents of Benton Harbor and remove 6,000 lead pipes. Petition signatories – ranging from local groups like the Benton Harbor Community Water Council to national organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council – say the situation has become a clear issue of environmental and racial justice: the EPA has this summer Action quickly taken to correct contamination in the drinking water of a white-majority town in West Virginia. But it hasn’t acted yet for Benton Harbor, where 90 percent of the population are colored and 45 percent live below the federal poverty line.

“It is a simple matter of law and justice that the people of Benton Harbor deserve clean water regardless of race or income,” Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and one of the organizers of the petition, said in one Press release. It is time for the federal government to step in to protect this low-income paint community from toxic water. ”

Benton Harbor isn’t the only one left behind. As lead pipes age across the country, paint communities are mostly the ones who drink contaminated water. An analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) last year found that colored communities and low-income neighborhoods were more likely to violate the Safe Drinking Water Act over a longer period of time. In Michigan, Highland Park, Harper Woods, and Eastpointe are all colored majority communities that have also struggled with high levels of lead in the past two years. At the national level, cities such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Chicago, Illinois are affected.

In July, after samples in Clarksburg, West Virginia, showed high levels of lead in drinking water, the EPA issued an emergency administrative order. The contract required the city to identify homes and businesses with leading utility lines and provide alternatives to clean drinking water. Clarksburg is the opposite of Benton Harbor – 92 percent of the population is white. “The situation in Benton Harbor is at least as extreme and could be even more extreme than in the case of Clarksburg, West Virginia,” says the new petition.

When asked about his action in Clarksburg and the inaction in Benton Harbor, Tim Carroll, a federal EPA spokesman, told Grist: “[The] The EPA has received the petition and is carefully examining the problems and concerns raised by this community. We are closely monitoring lead-related health problems in Benton Harbor. ”

The increased lead content in Benton Harbor’s drinking water is caused by the corrosion of old pipes – a natural process as this infrastructure ages. Local residents point out that while nothing has been done to address Benton Harbor’s lead problem, the predominantly white neighboring town of St. Joseph, which also had lead pipes, has no problems with lead in the water. The director of St. Joseph’s waterworks says the inequality could be due to several reasons, including the chemicals used to treat the water and overall water consumption. Others, like Pickney, say it is up to St. Joseph’s resources to solve the problem. The city of St. Joseph has a poverty rate of just 7 percent, compared to more than 45 percent in Benton Harbor.

Cyndi Roper, a senior political advocate for NRDC and a signatory to the petition, told Grist that the groups submitted the petition because “we were increasingly concerned about the lack of urgency among EGLE staff”.

EGLE, or the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, is the state agency responsible for regulating issues like water pollution in Michigan. The authority was made aware of the increased lead levels in the water during routine water tests in 2018. They then advised residents to run their water first and use a lead-reducing water filter provided by the county health department before using it. The city also installed anti-corrosion technology in its waterworks in March 2019 and began replacing some of its supply lines.

“The conversation focused on treatment techniques and how they would control corrosion in the water,” said Roper. “This is absolutely important, but we have to be careful that local residents don’t drink too much lead while they are experimenting with their corrosion protection.”

In the absence of state-provided clean drinking water, Pinkney and other activists held a water raffle in September, giving out 500 gallons of water to residents.

Reverend Edward Pinkney of Benton Harbor speaks to a group of people about the lead contamination problem in the city. Courtesy Edward Pinkney

The Lead and Copper Rule, part of the Safe Drinking Water Act, is a federal regulation that limits the concentration of these metals in drinking water. Michigan has the strongest state version of the lead and copper rule in the country after revisions were made in Flint in 2018 after the water crisis: it partially bans lead distribution pipelines, requires water utilities to pay for the entire length of the pipeline, replaces it and uses a more accurate method of testing of the water.

“If Michigan’s lead and copper rule, stronger than any other state, still allows this, then we will have serious problems with the way we handle lead and drinking water,” Roper told Grist.

The federal government is also jointly responsible.

The federal rule only requires cities to test drinking supplies every three years, and only 10 percent of households need to be tested. Cities are not required to notify the public of a lead problem until levels reach the federal 15 ppb limit, although public health experts emphasize that there is no safe amount of lead in water. And everything is based on city-wide data. So if at least 90 percent of households comply with the limit value, a water supplier complies with the regulations. If harmful concentrations of lead are found, this may trigger a necessary replacement of lead service lines, but federal regulation allows 33 years for this replacement to take place.

The EPA is currently deciding whether the lead and copper rule should be reissued or revised. During the summer, the federal agency held nationwide roundtables to gather feedback from communities. Benton Harbor was one of the cities that participated.

In addition to several changes to the federal lead and copper rule, Roper advocates a 10-year limit for replacing infrastructure and reducing breaches of lead in water from 15 ppb to 5 ppb. The EPA expects to announce the next steps before mid-December.

In early September, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer proposed spending federal pandemic aid money on lead line replacement – of which $ 20 million would go to Benton Harbor to replace all lines within 5 years. The proposal has yet to be passed by the country’s legislature. “It’s a process,” said Pinkney. “We can’t wait six months [Governor Whitmer] something to do. We can’t even wait another day. We have to start thinking about our children and their future and cleaning up this water – and doing that now. ”

At the federal level, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill this month that would allocate $ 15 billion to replace lead service lines across the country. However, it is estimated that the project will cost between $ 28 billion and $ 47 billion. According to a survey conducted by the NRDC, there are up to 12 million lead service lines across the country that are or could be lead and will need to be replaced in the coming years.

“Until we have got all these lead pipes out of the ground from the curb to the inside of the house, we will continue to have major problems with lead in drinking water,” said Roper. “Any community that has these lead pipes is one mistake away from potentially having its own water crisis.”

About Ellen Lewandowski

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