Abandoned by industry. Impoverished after white flight. Saddled with crumbling infrastructure, struggling schools and little, if any, money to fix the problems.
For decades this low-income, majority Black community — less than two hours from Chicago on the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan — has been ravaged by a litany of woes shared with many other once-thriving American cities.
Now the water isn’t safe to drink either.
A top state official urged Benton Harbor residents last month to drink and cook with bottled water, three years after testing required under a then-new Michigan law revealed high levels of brain-damaging lead in tap water.
The alarming findings are another example of hidden dangers in scores of U.S. cities that during the last century installed lead pipes known as service lines to deliver drinking water into homes. Chicago is the epicenter of the problem — there are 400,000 lead service lines throughout the city, more than anywhere else in the nation — but the scope of the hazards is becoming clear as states look more closely at aging water utilities.
“These problems in many cases have been going on for years and just haven’t made headlines,” said Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit legal and advocacy group that represents a Benton Harbor community group. “It’s a reflection of how we’ve ignored water infrastructure that is more than a century old, largely because it has been out of sight, out of mind.”
In Benton Harbor, levels of the toxic metal have continued to increase since the first batch of tests, records show, despite orders from the state’s environmental agency to treat Lake Michigan water with chemicals intended to form a protective coating inside lead pipes.
State officials distributed water filters in Benton Harbor. They sent notices alerting residents about the lead-in-water problems. But Gov. Gretchen Whitmer failed to declare a state of emergency until local activists, backed by state and national nonprofit groups, petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in September to intervene.
Whitmer, a Democrat up for reelection next year, has since vowed to speed up the replacement of lead service lines in Benton Harbor, with a goal of finishing the job by April 2023. On Nov. 2, the EPA demanded a sweeping overhaul of the city’s water treatment plant after inspectors from the agency’s Chicago office found broken equipment, overflowing chemical tanks, missing records and a slew of other problems inside the lakefront facility.
“We needed to shake them up because nobody seemed to have the urgency to do something about this problem,” the Rev. Edward Pinkney, a petitioner and leader of a local water council, told the Chicago Tribune during a recent morning before leading a caravan of volunteers that dropped cases of bottled water on doorsteps around town.
The scene was disturbingly similar to ongoing water deliveries across the state in Flint, another poor, predominantly Black city where high levels of lead and bacteria began flowing out of household taps in 2014. A state-appointed manager had cut costs by switching water supplies and skipping the addition of corrosion-fighting chemicals at the local treatment plant.
More than a dozen officials have been charged with crimes in connection with the Flint crisis, including former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
Benton Harbor discovered its lead problems after state lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, required more rigorous testing of water systems throughout Michigan in response to what happened in Flint. Similar problems have been found in dozens of other cities, including several where the population is mostly white.
Pumping corrosion-fighting chemicals into water systems, for years the preferred method among utilities to limit exposure to lead, can randomly fail for multiple reasons, studies have found.
“In a way, we needed Flint to happen to understand there are dangers in any city that used lead pipes,” said Elin Warn Betanzo, a former EPA engineer who played a key role in identifying what went wrong in Flint and now runs a Michigan-based consulting firm. “Unfortunately we’re going to see more communities like Benton Harbor until we replace these pipes.”
In March, a Tribune analysis found more than 8 of every 10 Illinoisans live in a community where lead was found in the tap water of at least one home during the past six years. Testing in dozens of homes found hundreds and even thousands of parts per billion of lead — just as extreme as what researchers found during the same period in Flint.
Chicago’s plumbing code required the use of lead until Congress banned the practice in 1986. Following years of denials from city officials that Chicago has a widespread problem, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced last year the city would start replacing the toxic pipes.
As of early September, only three homes had been provided with a safer copper water pipe by the Department of Water Management, the Tribune found.
There is no safe level of exposure to lead, according to the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The dangers are well-documented.
Ingesting tiny concentrations can permanently damage the developing brains of children, triggering learning disabilities, a lack of impulse control and criminal behavior later in life. Lead also contributes to heart disease, kidney failure and other health problems; in 2018, researchers estimated more than 400,000 deaths a year in the U.S. are linked to the toxic metal — 18% of all deaths.
For children in poor communities, a researcher once told the Tribune, exposure to lead is “another kick in the gut” amid myriad other social ills.
“Flint kids were poisoned by so many things before the water crisis,” Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician associated with Hurley Children’s Hospital and Michigan State University, said in an interview. “Poverty and racism and unemployment and violence and crumbling schools and disinvestment and neglect. The list goes on.”
Add to the list years of declining assistance from the federal government.
During an online news conference last week, the EPA’s top water regulator noted Congress finances just 9% of the repairs and improvements requested annually by municipal water utilities, down from 63% three decades ago.
A fresh infusion of cash is coming from recently enacted legislation pushed by President Joe Biden, shepherded by Democratic congressional leaders and supported by 13 House Republicans, including Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, who represents Benton Harbor.
The measure sets aside $15 billion to replace lead service lines, far less than the $45 billion proposed by Biden but significantly more than what has been spent so far to address the hazards. Illinois is expected to get $1.7 billion and Michigan slightly less.
“We will be working with communities that have a disproportionate level of contamination — low-income neighborhoods, communities of color,” Radhika Fox, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water, told reporters.
More money to eliminate the lead-in-water problem is included in another proposal Biden and his supporters call the Build Back Better bill.
Still unaddressed, though, are federal regulations that effectively keep the hazards hidden.
During the last months of the Trump administration, the EPA proposed an update that would allow cities to keep toxic pipes in the ground indefinitely. Biden appointees promise more protective regulations. However, it remains unclear if the administration will hold utilities responsible whenever lead is found in tap water.
Flint appears close to wrapping up its replacement of lead service lines, six years after its water crisis drew worldwide attention to the city.
The Rev. Allen Overton, one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that prompted court-mandated oversight of the municipal water system, is skeptical about claims of progress from local and state officials.
“When you have a system in place where nobody is held accountable, how are people going to act differently?” Overton in an interview. “I mean you poison an entire community and not one person went to jail. What signal do you think that sends across this country?”
Back in Benton Harbor, Kayla Jones shivered during a frigid morning while waiting for her mother to swing by with a spare key after she had locked herself out. Pickney had just delivered three cases of bottled water to her home off Union Park, where a sign posted by the city promotes “your tax dollars at work” on improvements.
Days earlier, testing revealed Jones’ 2-year-old son has elevated levels of lead in his blood.
“I don’t have a car right now, so the fact they are delivering water is important,” Jones said. “But nobody should have to live this way.”
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