State officials on Thursday defended their response to a lead crisis in a small southwestern Michigan city, telling lawmakers that steps to reduce corrosion in aging water pipes began in 2019, just a few months after tests revealed troubling results.
Benton Harbor residents will be urged to use free bottled water for drinking and cooking for weeks more, until a federal study confirms that filters can work effectively with the city’s tap water, Liesl Clark, the head of Michigan’s environmental agency, said.
But Clark said the ultimate remedy is the replacement of about 6,000 old water lines at homes, a job that could take nearly two years. Nearly $19 million in state and federal money has been set aside, but the goal is $30 million.
“High lead level tests in Benton Harbor homes result from the water picking up lead as it moves to the faucets. … The situation in Benton Harbor is urgent and inexcusable,” Clark said.
Her remarks to the House Oversight Committee came as Benton Harbor was dealing with yet another water woe: A pipe rupture Wednesday cut off water to virtually the entire community. Mayor Marcus Muhammad told lawmakers that he had only a “bird bath” before driving to Lansing.
Benton Harbor is a predominantly Black, mostly low-income community of 9,700 people, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Chicago. Residents have been urged to use bottled water due to elevated levels of lead, though bathing and washing clothes with tap water is OK.
Eric Oswald, head of Michigan’s drinking water division, said chemicals to control corrosion inside old pipes were first injected into Benton Harbor’s system in 2019, followed by higher doses in 2020.
“It’s shown some improvement,” Oswald said. “These systems take a long time. … When you don’t have corrosion control in your drinking water, you don’t have any coating on the pipes.”
He said the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has been working “far more aggressively than the law dictates.”
The committee chairman, Republican Rep. Steven Johnson, said he wasn’t trying to turn Benton Harbor into a “Flint water crisis” for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. But he repeatedly wondered why the city seemed to be getting so much attention lately from her administration.
Oswald said bottled water has been pushed hard because of questions about the effectiveness of tap filters in Newark, New Jersey.
“Before we go back and say the filters are absolutely, positively effective, they want to make sure the water chemistry in Benton Harbor” doesn’t pose a challenge, Oswald said.
Chris Cook, an engineer for the city, said 100 water line replacements are under contract so far with a federal grant and 200 more could be added by the end of 2021.