Benton Harbor Residents' Anger Lingers Over Lead-Tainted Water; Officials Hopeful

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BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — To hear Bobbie Clay explain it, the whispers of frustration in recent months over the lead-contaminated water issues here have morphed into roars of anger.

How could city and state officials, she asked, allow a lead-in-water crisis to go on three years in this place anchored by Whirlpool and adjacent to Lake Michigan and still not be solved or adequately warn residents? The situation, Clay said, has left many in this impoverished city of just under 10,000 residents furious.

“They’re mad. They are frustrated,” the 53-year-old resident told The Detroit News last month as she waited to get lead testing results in her doctor’s office. “They feel like we don’t have much hope or help or why do we have to fight so hard about this because water is a necessity. And we should have clean water.”

Benton Harbor resident Bobbie Clay said city residents are "mad" and "frustrated" about the lead-contaminated water.

Similar to the reactions of Flint residents to their water crisis years earlier, some Benton Harbor residents said they have felt disrespected, abandoned and overlooked by city and state officials and that they might never trust the drinking water again.

The distrust remains even as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other officials are pledging millions to replace the city's lead pipes in 18 months that experts say would ostensibly lower lead levels, which have continued to exceed state and federal limits since 2018.

Although lead levels from the latest half-year period have tested at 15 parts per billion, which is the minimum exceedance standard, lead levels have been as high as more than 850 ppbs in some individual homes in past tests.

The CDC has long said no amount of lead is good for the human body. Exposure to sustained levels of lead can cause a range of problems such as abdominal pain, constipation, memory loss, pain in the hands or weakness, as well as risks for high blood pressure, heart and kidney disease and reduced fertility.

“What frustrates me is that it shouldn’t have been OK with them from the beginning for us to drink this water knowing that it was contaminated,” Clay said. “Guaranteed they would not want to come over here and run a glass of water out the faucet and drink it.”

The ire of residents like Clay is the result of three straight years of Benton Harbor having lead exceedances and not knowing for much of it that their drinking water was unsafe. The city and state did not warn or provide alternative water sources, such as bottled water, until last fall, drawing comparisons to the situation in Flint.

State and city officials also have been treating Benton Harbor's drinking water with a corrosion chemical blend that has failed to control harmful levels of lead for more than two years. State officials have rejected federal requirements to fully study its effectiveness, arguing that a smaller study was needed given the cost.

But state officials have pointed to the latest half-year testing results as showing the lead contamination is decreasing.

"This is encouraging news, an indication that corrosion control treatment is taking hold and reducing the amount of lead getting into the water," said Eric Oswald, director of EGLE's Drinking Water and Environmental Health division, in a mid-December statement.

"This does not lessen the urgency around our continuing efforts to assist the city in aggressively reducing lead exposure through lead service line replacement, corrosion control and working to overcome aging infrastructure challenges.

'Can't trust our higher uppers'

Now some residents have taken their frustration to the legal system. A lawsuit filed late last year by 16 residents in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan alleges officials failed to warn residents of problems with the water running through lead service pipes "into their homes, schools, hospitals, workplaces and public places" and that they concealed a "toxic lead emergency."

The state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has had no comment on the lawsuit.

At City Hall in Benton Harbor, City Manager Elliott Mitchell said he doesn't see the southwest Michigan city under a crisis because the problem is being addressed at the city, state and federal level.

Rev. Edward Pinkney, a Benton Harbor activist who has been sounding the alarm about the water crisis for years, said the trust residents have is gone and might never return.

What really riled residents, he said, was the victory dance done by the state when the last lead test showed 15 parts per billion — the lowest actionable level — when it still shows problems with the drinking water.

"They don't trust the city government, they don't trust the state government and they don't trust the federal government," Pinkney said. "Three years of torture and they come back now with 15 parts per billion and they're happy about it. How can they be happy? There's no reason in the world for them to be happy about 15 parts per billion of lead."

Pinkney said "everything is about trust now" and that he believes more than 50% the residents in the city will never trust the water again.

"Trust is so important," he added.

James Moore II, 54, echoed that viewpoint. He argued city and state leaders failed the residents. They weren't adequately warned, he said, which leaves him and others incensed, especially given the vulnerable children and elderly.

"We can't trust our higher uppers," he said. "They knew three years ago (about the lead), I'm guaranteeing you they knew. Perhaps four years ago. Why three years later they just telling us?"

Moore II said his trust extends beyond just the failure in Benton Harbor and that "we've been lied to too many times."

But then he added, "never would I have expected to be like Flint."

'Working tirelessly to fix it'

Mayor Marcus Muhammad acknowledged the angst in his city, describing it in an interview as "mixed emotions" but said that he thinks the tide will turn.

"There's anxiety, there's frustration, there's adulation at the most recent (lead) results," the mayor said. "But we also have to remember that there are people who are out there whose water tested below the 15 parts per billion, some at zero."

And that has led some, Muhammad said, to question, "why are we being called the next Flint."

"So it just depends on who you talk to," he continued. "But as the mayor, I have to take the temperature and be cognizant of all moves because it's my responsibility to work with everybody, whether they're angry, whether they're mad, whether they're frustrated, whether they want to recall the mayor."

Dr. Don Tynes, a pediatrician and internal medicine doctor in Benton Harbor who has been testing hundreds of residents for lead, acknowledged the anger.

“It’s more that they feel betrayed and they feel misled,” Tynes said.

“It still falls on his shoulders” of Muhammed and City Manager Ellis Mitchell, Tynes said, in that they failed to tell the residents that the water was unsafe going all the way back to 2018.

Mitchell said that while he understands the resident's concerns, he's "ecstatic" that Benton Harbor "has an opportunity to fix this." The city manager said he doesn't see Benton Harbor under a crisis because the problem is being addressed at the city, state and federal level.

"We've identified the problem, put together a plan, we've got the money, we're working on fixing it," Mitchell said.

Donnie Meeks Sr., a Berrien County commissioner who lives in Benton Harbor, said residents “have a reason to be upset” because the warnings about the drinking water came late, but Whitmer and Muhammed are working tirelessly to fix it.

“They didn’t cause the problem,” Meeks said. “Now the problem is being addressed and solved.”

"This isn't just a Benton Harbor problem. It's a problem all over. Let's fix it. You can point the finger and all that, but let's get this corrected. And I think something good is going to come out of something bad. Benton Harbor will end up with the cleanest water in the country."

Meanwhile, Clay said there are still residents who don't know how bad the water is but most throughout this year have been getting the message.

When asked if people would ever drink the water again, Clay responded, "some of them won't. I probably won't, not ever, but for a while after it's fixed and I hear that they tested it and it's good."

Clay said she'd be willing to encourage people that the water is safe once she feels comfortable.

“Benton Harbor is a little bitty city. Therefore it shouldn’t take much to get this water situation taken care of," she said.