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Access to safe clean water is a right, not a privilege.

african-american female washes a small colander of cherries at kitchen sink

Source: Catherine McQueen / Getty

Despite having direct access to one of the largest freshwater supplies in the United States, another predominantly Black and low-income town in Michigan has been left to suffer for years with contaminated drinking water. The Guardian reports that city, county, and state officials left Benton Harbor, one of the poorest towns in the state, to suffer the same environmental racism as Flint, Michigan.

Residents reported tap water that was brown, had a taste and smell like sewage, or bubbling and “sizzling like Alka-Seltzer.” Those complaints were largely ignored until tap water tests in 2018 showed lead levels at 22 parts per billion. The federal lead action level starts at 15 parts per billion and Flint, which is about 200 miles away, averaged 20 parts per billion.

City, county, and state officials provided little relief, often forcing the people of Benton Harbor to buy their own bottled water or filters. These costs add up fast, especially for the  45% of Benton Harbor residents living below the poverty line. There is no such thing as a safe or acceptable level of lead exposure. Lead impairs mental functioning and development in children, builds up in the brain, liver, kidneys, and bones over time, and increases the risk of pregnancy complications and birth defects. While lead accumulated in their bodies every time people had to use tap water to drink or cook, the pipes continued to deteriorate and contamination levels continued to increase.

Twenty environmental and community advocacy organizations had to file a petition for emergency action with the US Environmental Protection Agency on September 9. The document states that lead levels in the water have tested as high as nearly 60 times the federal safety limit in the 85% Black city. Meanwhile, the water quality seems to be perfectly safe in Whiter and wealthier towns cities nearby like St. Joseph, which has a similar-sized population that is 85% White and only has a poverty rate of 7%.

The state of Michigan is finally starting to respond to the petition’s demands. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy announced that they would provide bottled water while they distribute and install faucet lead filters door-to-door. They will also expand public education and community outreach campaigns to improve where past water safety programs fell short.

“The State of Michigan remains committed to ensuring every Michigander has access to safe drinking water. Benton Harbor’s aging drinking water infrastructure is a major focus of that effort and the work to remove lead from people’s drinking water is accelerating,” said Scott Dean, a spokesman for EGLE.

The neglect of Flint has demonstrated that filters and cases of water are no substitute for failing infrastructure. Maintaining filters puts the responsibility on the residents to keep themselves safe. The state plans to dedicate $18.6 million to replacing Benton Harbor’s pipes. Even this feels like a hollow victory after 3 years of allowing lead levels 60 times the federal safety limit to poison and permanently harm the people of this community. With lead pipes still in use for residential water supply in all 50 states, clean water and infrastructure are national issues that require immediate action.


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