Addressing Benton Harbor’s Lead Water Crisis Took a Village—and Years
As in Flint, Michigan, severe lead contamination in Benton Harbor illustrates the obstacles environmental justice communities face, and why the fight for stronger federal protections continues.
Even before elevated lead levels in Benton Harbor’s water were official, there were already rumblings in the Michigan community. Reverend Edward Pinkney recalls that the daughter of a longtime resident, who was visiting from Texas in 2018, ran the bath water and noticed it was yellow and had particles in it. She asked her mom how long it had been this way. The mother’s response: Months.
This is when residents with similar concerns formed the Benton Harbor Community Water Council (BHCWC). Then Pinkney, the organization’s president, sent the water to a public lab. Results showed lead at a concentration of more than 300 parts per billion (ppb), which severely exceeded the federal action level of 15 parts per billion.
Later that year, Cyndi Roper, NRDC’s Michigan senior policy advocate, Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, and Elin Warn Betanzo, a water safety consultant, began separately analyzing Michigan’s water data.
After the infamous water crisis in Flint, and the poor governmental response that followed, they’d been part of a coalition seeking to revise the state’s Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), which attempts to limit lead and copper in drinking water. And while their work helped ensure Michigan’s LCR became the strongest in the nation, these advocates also wanted to confirm that water utilities were adhering to the new requirements.
“In most instances, nobody is watching those compliance reports,” says Roper. “These utilities and state agencies aren’t used to anybody paying attention.”
That fall, when the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE)—the state agency responsible for regulating issues like water contamination—released the compliance report for Benton Harbor, the results were troubling. The small, majority-Black city had its first official lead “action level exceedance.” It wasn’t the last one either. More exceedances followed, in 2019, 2020, and 2021. “We were getting increasingly concerned because there’s no safe level of lead exposure, yet this community was having very persistent elevated lead levels,” says Betanzo.
The lack of aggressive action by state and local agencies in response to this ongoing crisis meant an entire community was left vulnerable to lead levels that posed extraordinary health risks. It also became the impetus for water experts, community leaders, lawyers, and advocates to come together and demand justice for the people of Benton Harbor.
How Benton Harbor’s water crisis unfolded
The initial 2018 compliance report that alerted the trio of advocates, and which came back at 22 ppb, triggered several requirements for the Benton Harbor public water system and EGLE under the federal and Michigan LCRs. This included increasing tap monitoring frequency to two sampling periods per year, implementing a corrosion control treatment to lower the amount of lead released into the water, and replacing lead pipes, the source of the lead problem.
Also, as a general step, consistent with EGLE guidance, the city advised residents to let water from the tap run for several minutes and to use lead-reducing water filters provided by the county health department.
Unfortunately, not long after, multiple issues emerged, particularly with some of the potential solutions. In March 2019, EGLE approved Benton Harbor’s permit for the installation of corrosion control treatment, but it did not formally designate the suggested treatment as optimal before administering it. Nor did it originally require a full corrosion control study compliant with the federal or the Michigan LCR. The point of taking these required actions beforehand is to ensure a better shot at getting the right treatment to work fast. When the results for the January–June water sampling period came back, it was a second official exceedance. This time, at 27 parts per billion.
That November, Leonard sent a letter to EGLE expressing concerns regarding corrosion control. EGLE replied, stating that officials were working within legal parameters and shared that an initial study showed the corrosion inhibitor was “effectively reducing corrosion rates.” Except that winter, water sampling results for July–December 2019 showed lead in the water at 32 parts per billion.
“I was not surprised; I was more disheartened,” says Leonard. “We expected there would be more communities with lead action level exceedances because the monitoring requirements were more robust. But a disappointing thing was how the state responded. It became clear with each exceedance that what they were doing wasn’t working.”
This also meant many residents still had undrinkable water and, in a lot of cases, didn’t even know it.
The fundamental problem is that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water. Even low to moderate levels of exposure cause serious harm like hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and kidney impairment. And, while the metal is toxic to everyone, it is particularly dangerous for fetuses, infants, and young children, whose brains and bodies are rapidly developing and more easily absorb lead.
“[Officials] should’ve gone on high alert to educate people and make sure they had everything they needed to protect themselves,” Roper says. But instead, according to Pinkney, the BHCWC was left to fill in the gaps. They distributed cases of bottled water, educated the community about water filters, and hosted sessions about how lead affects the body. They also demanded a systemic solution.
Advocates join forces
From the beginning of 2020 to the middle of 2021, EGLE and the city of Benton Harbor went back and forth regarding corrosion control and how to best go about it. There were three more lead-level exceedances during that time.
Meanwhile, the growing group of local and national advocates connected.
In May of 2020, Roper introduced Pinkney to Betanzo, who shared what she’d observed in the publicly available water data about Benton Harbor, and the reasons the information was concerning.
In June of the following year, after it became very clear that corrosion control was still not working, Betanzo, Leonard, Roper, and other advocates began collaborating more closely with Pinkney and the BHCWC. Leonard spoke with the reverend “about what he wanted to have happen” in response. Roper and others worked with Pinkney during the planning process for Michigan’s community roundtables with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding future federal Lead and Copper Rule revisions. Roper says several groups also helped the BHCWC with one of their lead education sessions, where she advocated for focusing less on putting filters on faucets and more on getting lead out of the water entirely. “As I was leaving, I approached Reverend Pinkney and said, ‘We have to talk about how to fix this problem, and the only way we’re going to be able to do that is if we escalate and take action.’ He replied, ‘Okay, let’s schedule a time.’”
From that moment on, they were a team.
“It’s a Black community,” Pinkney says. “[Officials] were probably thinking ‘They’re hollering now, they run fast, but they don’t run long.’ We decided we were going to challenge them all the way.”
The challenge was necessary. One lead action level exceedance isn’t uncommon. But by August of 2021, Benton Harbor had racked up six consecutive exceedances. And while the city eventually managed to select a contractor to perform a corrosion control study, a few things became clear. One, the funding was potentially inadequate. Two, the timeline for bringing the lead levels down was far too long. And three, there was some concern that the city had not complied with the requirement to annually replace 7 percent of its lead service lines.
After talks between the BHCWC, the regional EPA office, EGLE, and others didn’t yield any new action, advocates knew it was time to get the federal EPA involved. In September of 2021, NRDC, the BHCWC, and 18 other Michigan and national organizations filed an emergency petition to the EPA to secure a free source of safe drinking water for Benton Harbor’s nearly 10,000 residents and to remove an estimated 6,000 lead pipes.
“There wasn’t much of a response from the state and city for [almost] a good month,” Leonard says. “It wasn’t until it hit national media outlets in October that things really changed.”
That’s when state health officials told Benton Harbor residents to use bottled water out of “an abundance of caution.” Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer also signed an executive order, calling for a “whole-of-government” response, including access to free bottled water and a commitment to replace the city’s estimated 6,000 lead service lines within 18 months.
And in November, the federal EPA issued an enforcement order, directing the city to take specific steps to bring its water system into compliance with federal drinking water law.
“We shouldn’t have had to petition the EPA to say there was an imminent and substantial endangerment,” Roper says. “The state agency should have taken urgent action themselves.”
As of today, the city has completed 81 percent of lead pipe replacements. The work is expected to be finished about a year after the governor first committed to fixing it.
A history of inequity and its impact
There are as many as 12.8 million lead service lines carrying water to residents across all 50 states. And communities of color and low-income communities are more likely to get their water from systems with persistent drinking water violations.
Benton Harbor is a textbook example. Some 45 percent of residents live below the poverty line, and more than 90 percent are people of color, the majority of whom are Black. This did not come about by accident.
In the 1960s, the city’s public housing was heavily segregated, as were the schools. So much so that the school district was sued, and the court found it guilty of intentionally acting to segregate based on race through a number of actions. The district, for example, assigned Black teachers to identifiably Black schools and allowed white teachers to freely transfer out. This meant Black students were taught by a higher percentage of younger teachers without prior experience, and who were paid “significantly lower” wages. Predominantly Black schools also dealt with overcrowding and severe dilapidation and had no library facilities. The court concluded that this discrimination “set the stage for the exodus of white families.”
But for Black families, the decades of segregation, pervasive racism, redlining, and resulting divestment had the effect of restricting where they could live and go to school. The impact of that persists today. A still-shrinking Benton Harbor population gets its water from a system that is too old and now too large.
In fact, Benton Harbor’s water distribution system is about 100 years old. It was originally designed for twice the customers and twice the rate base, according to EGLE. It also has a history of mismanagement. These disparities were all made worse over the past decade, after Benton Township and St. Joseph Township broke away from Benton Harbor’s water system without analyzing the impact or gathering community input, resulting in what Roper says anyone would’ve seen coming: A further decline in customers and revenue for the remaining Benton Harbor water system, and more negative effects on the quality of its drinking water.
And while President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will invest $15 billion to replace lead service lines around the country, the crisis in Benton Harbor shows that it takes more than federal money to assist under-resourced local governments. They need guidance, technical help, and, often, strong advocates. Also key is a plain acknowledgment of the problem and what’s required to fix it.
Pinkney wants communities, especially Black communities, to hold their local governments and water utilities accountable. He knows “doors will get slammed in your face” but emphasizes the importance of questioning. “You have to send your water out and have it tested because [government agencies] will say anything,” he says.
What’s next in the fight for stronger legal protections
Looking back, Pinkney can see how addressing the lead water in Benton Harbor came down to a great team of advocates. But even with all this support, and the strongest state LCR in the country, the community still didn’t get the immediate response it needed. This is why creating better federal protections is key.
The current federal LCR, as amended at the end of the Trump administration, is weak. It only requires that cities test drinking water in a tiny percentage of homes, and generally every three years. In some cases, they only have to test once every nine years. The rule also doesn’t require cities to notify residents until there’s an official lead action level exceedance. And, in that instance, at least 10 percent of homes must be affected before the water utility will replace lead service lines. Though cities have up to a 33-year timeline to do it, as soon as lead levels are under the action level exceedance, they don’t have to continue.
According to a White House fact sheet released this June, the EPA is now advancing the regulatory process to develop a new LCR, which would “result in the replacement of all lead service lines as quickly as is feasible.” But advocates, including NRDC, Earthjustice, and at least 10 states, want more than a promise. They’re moving forward with a legal challenge and filed their opening brief on August 8, outlining the issues with the current federal LCR.
Throughout the nation, many residents remain concerned about the safety of their water. And those concerns are valid, says Leonard. “Even if your [water] system is in full compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule, meaning not having a lead action level exceedance, and your water system is telling you that your water is perfectly safe, that may not be the case.”
This is why the federal LCR can’t be simply tweaked, Roper adds. It must be overhauled and strengthened to prevent another generation from drinking lead-contaminated water.
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