Press Release

Groups File Emergency Petition Asking EPA to Order Safe Water for Benton Harbor, MI Due to Shocking Lead Contamination

Immediate action is needed to deliver safe drinking water to Benton Harbor, as Congress considers legislation to remove the nation’s lead water pipes

Margie Kelly
mkelly@nrdc.org, 541-222-9699 

Benton Harbor, MI – High lead contamination levels in this community’s drinking water over the last three years led a group of 20 Michigan and national organizations to file an emergency petition today with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to secure a free source of safe drinking water for Benton Harbor’s nearly 10,000 residents. Recent tests found lead levels above state and federal action levels, with results as high as nearly 60 times federal standards. 

The petition cites the “imminent and substantial endangerment” to health from drinking water significantly contaminated with lead and urges EPA to immediately order the City and Michigan officials to provide Benton Harbor residents with safe drinking water, among other requests, including full removal of the nearly 6,000 lead service lines delivering water to homes. 

“For at least three years, the people of Benton Harbor have been waiting for safe drinking water uncontaminated by dangerous lead. But we are not willing to wait any longer. It’s urgent that the EPA intervene to give this community access to water that won’t harm our health, especially our children’s health,” said Reverend Edward Pinkney, president, Benton Harbor Community Water Council. 

Yesterday, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer proposed to seek “every federal, state and local resource available” to raise $20 million to replace Benton Harbor’s lead water pipes, repair the city’s water infrastructure, and provide drinking water filters, but made no free source of safe water available. While the governor promised to provide home water filters, community members are concerned that previous promises to provide filters have resulted in haphazard, poor distribution, reaching only a limited number of homes with little or no help in installing, maintaining or using the filters or informing the public of the importance of using them to protect their families’ health. 

Benton Harbor is located just a few hours west of Flint, where a lead contamination crisis in 2014 launched a national conversation about equal access to safe water. Benton Harbor is an environmental justice community, where 90 percent of its residents are people of color and 45 percent have an income below the federal poverty level. There is no safe level of lead exposure. It is well-established that children of color and low-income kids have greater exposure to lead, not just in water, but paint, soil, and air. Drinking water systems serving communities that are the most marginalized are more likely to be in violation of the law, and to stay in violation for longer periods of time.  

“It’s a simple matter of law and justice that the people of Benton Harbor deserve safe water, regardless of their race or income. The EPA must exercise its authority to order delivery of water bottles and filters to Benton Harbor residents, schools, and day care centers; it is time for the federal government to step in to protect this low-income community of color from toxic water,” said Nick Leonard, executive director, Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. 

The petition draws attention to EPA’s disparate treatment of residents from the predominantly Black city of Benton Harbor and the predominantly white residents of Clarksburg, West Virginia. The EPA appropriately issued an Emergency Administrative Order in Clarksburg in July 2021, after water sampling at about three sites showed very high levels of lead, together with a lack of data on how widespread lead service lines are in the community. Benton Harbor has had lead action exceedances over at least three years, with dozens of samples above the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) – including some over 400 ppb, and thousands of known lead service lines. “The situation in Benton Harbor is at least as extreme, and could be more extreme, than the case of Clarksburg, West Virginia,” petitioners argued. 

The City of Benton Harbor and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) have been aware of the shockingly high levels of lead for years, but neither has taken meaningful, competent or timely action to correct the problem. Tests during the last six-month sampling period found lead levels at 24 parts per billion (ppb) with a reported range of results from 0 to 889 parts per billion (ppb) – nearly 60 times the federal action level of 15 ppb. 

“I decided to join the fight for safe drinking water in Benton Harbor because I don’t think people understand just how bad the lead problem is. Tests on the tap water in my house found 469 parts per billion of lead; that’s 60 times more than the government allows. I can’t let my children and grandchildren drink that dangerous water. How much worse does it have to be before one of my elected officials uses their power to make sure Benton Harbor’s water is safe to drink?” said Stacey Branscumb, a resident of Benton Harbor. 

Governor Whitmer is looking for federal help to supplement state and local funding to pay for lead service line replacement. President Biden has urged Congress to pass infrastructure legislation to remove the nation’s estimated 9 to 12 million lead pipes found in all fifty states. However, the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. Senate provides $15 billion for lead service line replacement, just one-third of the $45 billion needed. It is unclear whether that legislation, plus a “reconciliation” bill that is also being considered in Congress, will be enacted and be sufficient to help communities like Benton Harbor pay to replace their lead pipes. 

“Michigan’s response to this lead-in-water crisis has been plagued by delay and failure. Benton Harbor requires an ‘all hands on deck’ approach from the EPA, Governor Whitmer, and the state’s Congressional delegation, which, regrettably, is already well aware of the significant damage inflicted on Michiganders’ lives by lead-contaminated drinking water,” said Cyndi Roper, senior Michigan advocate with NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). 

The petition demands several specific actions from EPA, including: 

  • Requiring immediate provision of safe and free alternative drinking water to Benton Harbor residents, including bottled water and/or water buffalos as well as filtered water pitchers and/or faucet mount filters, filter education, and replacement cartridges; 
  • Immediately requiring the City to advise residents not to consume unfiltered water; 
  • Immediately requiring safe water for schools and childcare facilities
  • Reviewing the state’s determinations regarding water treatment for lead reduction and ordering optimal corrosion control treatment; 
  • Requiring the City to conduct continued and improved monitoring for lead and to submit a Quality Assurance Project Plan for monitoring; 
  • Ordering the city to comply with public education and supplemental monitoring requirements; 
  • Providing EPA technical and financial assistance to Benton Harbor under section 1442(b) of the Safe Drinking Water Act and other authorities to address the lead crisis; 
  • Requiring the state to provide assistance to Benton Harbor to come into compliance; 
  • Ordering other relief EPA determines is necessary to protect the health of Benton Harbor residents. 

A copy of the petition is available at: https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/benton-harbor-sdwa-petition-20210909.pdf  

The full list of petitioners includes:  

Benton Harbor Community Water Council, Reverend Edward Pinkney, President 

Campaign for Lead Free Water, Yanna Lambrinidou and Paul Schwartz, Co-founders 

Clean Water Action, Mary Brady-Enerson, Michigan Director 

Detroit People’s Platform, Linda Campbell, MPH 

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, Director, Pediatric Public Health Initiative; C.S. Mott Endowed Professor of Public Health, Division of Public Health; Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics and Human Development, Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, Hurley Children’s Hospital at Hurley Medical Center 

East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Darryl Jordan 

Ecology Center, Mara Herman, MPH 

Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint, Mona Monroe-Younis, Executive Director 

Flint Rising, Nayyirah Shariff, Director 

For Love of Water (FLOW), Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director 

Freshwater Future, Jill Ryan, Executive Director 

Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, Nicholas Leonard, Executive Director 

Highland Park Human Rights Coalition, Marian Kramer, Chair 

Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, Michelle Martinez, Executive Director 

Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Maureen Taylor, State Chair 

Natural Resources Defense Council, Cyndi Roper, Senior Policy Advocate, and Jeremy Orr, Senior Staff Attorney 

People’s Water Board Coalition, Sylvia Orduño, Organizer 

Safe Water Engineering, LLC, Elin Betanzo, Principal 

Sierra Club Michigan Chapter, Gail Philbin, Chapter Director, and Rhonda Anderson 

Water You Fighting For? Melissa Mays, Founder 

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NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

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