(LANSING, Michigan) – Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday issued an executive directive to help Benton Harbor residents access safe drinking water, promising to replace all lead pipes by April 2023.
The directive comes a week after authorities urged residents of Benton Harbor, a city of 9,600, to use bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing their teeth due to the high levels of lead in water tests.
“For six consecutive sampling periods over the past three years, the Benton Harbor water system has failed to meet the regulatory standard for lead,” the governor said in the directive.
Defenders of the city had filed an emergency petition with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on September 9 demanding federal intervention to help with the crisis.
In the directive, the governor announced that she would speed up replacements of main service lines to be completed in 18 months, down from five years previously. The effort will also continue to provide free bottled water to residents of Benton Harbor, along with free or low-cost drinking water testing and health services.
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has received approval from the Food and Nutrition Department of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide residents of Benton Harbor with infant formula specific products that do not require water mixing.
The effort will be funded by federal, state and local resources, with additional federal funding expected through the infrastructure bill currently passing through Congress. As part of Michigan’s 2022 state budget, $ 10 million is spent on replacing service lines at Benton Harbor.
“I can’t imagine the stress that Benton Harbor moms and dads go through as they come out of a pandemic, work hard to put food on the table, pay the bills and deal with a threat to the environment. their children’s health, “Whitmer said in a statement. “We won’t rest until the job is done and every parent feels confident to give their child a drink of water knowing it’s safe. “
Reverend Edward Pinkney, a local activist and chairman of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, touted the directive as a victory.
“Without the petition, none of this could have happened. I’m more than happy Whitmer is now taking this a little more seriously, ”he told ABC News. “But, I want her to tell people that the water is not drinkable rather than saying it is ‘over-caution’.”
Benton Harbor draws its water from Lake Michigan. High levels of lead in water have been a problem for several years in the city, where 85% of the population is black, 5% Hispanic and about 45% have incomes below the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. census.
Lead can enter drinking water when plumbing materials and service lines contain lead corrosion. Exposure to lead interferes with brain development in children and causes short- and long-term health problems for adults, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The EPA has a lead contamination action level of 15 parts per billion. If the water samples reach this mark, authorities are expected to take several steps to educate the public and restore the water to a safe level.
At Benton Harbor, water tests exceeded this level in 2018. A house in 2020 was tested at 440 ppb for lead. Eleven homes tested this year showed water with lead levels above 15 ppb, with one home hitting 889 ppb – nearly 60 times the action level of the EPA, according to data released by the city.
According to the petition filed with the EPA, Benton Harbor has 5,877 service lines in total, 51% of which “contain lead, are known to be galvanized lines previously connected to lead, or are of an unknown material but susceptible to damage. contain lead. “Only 2% of service lines contain no lead.
The crisis echoes the Flint, Michigan crisis of 2014 and 2015, where the state changed the city’s water supply to come from the Flint River. An investigation later revealed that there were highly toxic levels of lead in the water.
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