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A closer look at Benton Harbor's lead testing, service lines

City officials discuss how the water crisis got to this point

BENTON HARBOR — The city of Benton Harbor has been in the national spotlight for about a month over its lead service lines possibly poisoning hundreds, if not thousands, of residents for years.

The extent of the problem won’t be known until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finishes testing the reliability of the free certified water filters the state has been giving residents for almost three years to filter out the lead.

Taylor Gillespie, strategic communications coordinator with the EPA, said via email that the agency will share updates on the study “as soon as possible.”

“First, we want to make clear that certified filters that are properly installed and maintained are very effective in reducing lead concentrations in drinking water, according to the most recent science and studies,” she said. “Out of an abundance of caution, EPA is evaluating the state of the science and acting to further understand filter effectiveness in relation to Benton Harbor’s specific water chemistry.”

City officials have repeatedly said the water coming from the city’s water treatment plant and through the city’s distribution system has no lead in it. Instead, they say the lead is coming from lead service lines that carry the water from the property line to the water meter for each residence, or from the home’s interior plumbing and water fixtures.

The long-term solution has always been to replace the lead service lines, with water filters used until that can be done.

But what’s the hold-up? City officials say it’s money.

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said the city would have replaced all of the lead service lines immediately in October 2018 when the city was first put under a state advisory for having higher-than-acceptable amounts of lead in some of the city’s tap water.

“This is a $30 million plus project,” Muhammad said. “The city has been struggling financially for decades. We don’t have the resources to replace all of the lines.”

In 2018, eight of the 30 Benton Harbor homes tested for lead over the summer were above the action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) for lead, and the 90th percentile of the samples was 22 ppb for lead. The city has been required to test homes for lead every six months since then.

The city has roughly 6,000 service lines of various materials, with half of them active, according to Scott Dean, strategic communications advisor with EGLE.

Chris Cook from Abonmarche, the city’s engineering firm, said with no outside help, the city’s 3,000 customers would have had to pay at least $300 per year to remove the lead on top of what they already pay. He said Benton Harbor residents, who have a median income of $18,000 per year, are already paying some of the highest water rates in the area.

20-year project

Muhammad said the city was doing the best it could as money became available. It was projected that it would take 20 years to replace all of the service lines.

Then, he said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer stepped in. On Sept. 8, Whitmer proposed a plan to invest $20 million of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan to help Benton Harbor remove the lead service lines in five years. But Muhammad said she needed state legislators to approve the investment.

The next day, a group of 20 organizations filed a petition with the EPA asking for emergency action under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

Later in September, it was announced that the state’s 2022 budget included $10 million to replace the lead service lines in Benton Harbor.

Ultimately, on Oct. 6, state officials announced that they were urging Benton Harbor residents to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula “out of an abundance of caution” while the EPA studies the effectiveness of the filters.

State acceleration

On Oct. 14, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II traveled to Benton Harbor to announce that Whitmer had signed an executive directive that state officials do whatever they can to get the city’s lead service lines replaced within 18 months.

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, also traveled to Benton Harbor.

“Given some of the recent test results and the composition of the water, there has been a question about whether they are as effective as we previously thought,” she said. “And for that reason, until we feel like we can say that with certainty, we would rather have people use bottled water so we know we are completely mitigating any risk of exposure.”

Until the lead service lines are replaced, Whitmer pledged to send 20 semis of bottled water to Benton Harbor every week to make sure residents had water to drink.

Meanwhile, the city has been working to replace the service lines as money became available.

Even before the city was placed under the lead advisory, it received a $284,000 grant in May 2018 from a pilot lead removal program offered by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (now called the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy).

Cook said that money was used to replace 17 lead service lines and to study corrosion control options.

Another 151 lead service lines were replaced as part of the $15 million infrastructure project that is just being completed, he said.

The work was partially paid for by low-interest loans from two state programs – the Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund (DWRF) for the water projects and the State Revolving Loan Fund (SRF) for the sewer projects. Cook said the work included $1.4 million in loan forgiveness.

Another 100 lead service lines will start to be replaced using some of a $5.6 million grant from the EPA, which was announced in October 2020 but wasn’t received until June. Cook said they initially asked the EPA for almost $20 million.

In all, the EPA grant is expected to replace 888 lead service lines in the city.

In September, the city found out it was awarded $6.5 million in grants and loans from the state’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for fiscal year 2022. This money includes $3 million in federal “Booker funds,” which were established by the DWSRF for 2022 to help disadvantaged communities replace lead service lines.

This money is expected to replace another 600 lead service lines.

Cook said these grants and loans were obtained due to hours of work behind the scenes done by his staff.

He said replacing the lead service lines won’t solve all of the city’s problems with its water system. Cook said many of the mains are almost 100 years old and are too small. He said many of them need to be replaced so the city has adequate pressure for fire protection.

National attention

The national, and even statewide, media has reported about the homes that have high levels of lead in their tap water.

What many haven’t reported on is that most of the city’s homes have tested as having little if any lead in their tap water.

Muhammad said his home’s tap water has tested as having no lead in it at all. Several businesses have also said their test results came back negative for lead.

Last week, Muhammad testified before the state’s House Oversight Committee in Lansing, where he asked for an additional $11.4 million so the city has all of the money it needs to replace the lead service lines.

Lining it up

During the hearing in Lansing, Liesl Clark, director of EGLE, said it is projected to cost $2 billion to remove all of the lead service lines in the state.

Michigan started requiring public water suppliers to maintain an inventory of what their service lines are made of in their distribution systems, with the first annual reports submitted in January 2020 and updated in December 2020.

According to documents received from the state, 51 percent (1.4 million) of the state’s service lines are not lead or galvanized pipe, with another 25 percent (649,000) unknown but not likely to be lead.

Another 12 percent (314,000) of service lines are unknown.

That leaves 12 percent (331,523) of the state’s service lines being made of lead or galvanized pipe. At an estimated $5,000 a piece, it will cost $1.6 billion to replace all of the known lead service lines.

If half of the unknown service lines are made of lead, it will cost another $785 million to replace those, thus putting the total replacement cost at $2.4 billion.

A sister city

Benton Harbor wasn’t the only Berrien County city to receive money from the state’s pilot program in May 2018.

St. Joseph secured $272,000 to remove lead service lines in the city.

Of St. Joseph’s 3,875 water service lines, only 482 are known to not be made of lead or galvanized pipe. Another 106 are known to be made of lead. The majority, 2,457, are unknown but likely made of lead, according to the state’s documents.

St. Joseph City Manager John Hodgson said via email that lead service lines are mostly found in older communities like St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, which were mostly built out by 1960 and have older distribution systems.

Besides providing water to the city’s 8,800 residents, the St. Joseph water treatment plant provides water to about 25,000 people in Lincoln, Royalton and St. Joseph townships through the Southwest Michigan Regional Sanitary Sewer and Water Authority.

St. Joseph city engineer Tim Zebell said because the townships were built later than the city, very little if any lead is expected to be found in their lead service lines. As a result, the city started listing the townships separately from the city for lead and copper reporting in the 2018 City of St. Joseph Annual Water Quality Report.

In the 2020 water quality report, it was reported that St. Joseph’s tap water tested at 9 ppb for lead, with the townships testing at zero. This is well below the state’s action level of 15 ppb, but above the 5 ppb allowed in bottled water.

Earlier this month, St. Joseph commissioners approved a contract to replace lead service lines to 63 properties in 2022.

At the time, Zebell said the city’s water system is in compliance with state water standards, but state regulations require that 5 percent of lead service lines be replaced annually, with all lead service lines to be replaced by Jan. 1, 2041.

The only other water systems in Berrien County to test higher than 5 ppb was Mary’s City of David (6 ppb) and Country View Manor Condos (7 ppb), according to state documents.

In Cass County, the only water systems to test higher than 5 ppb were Edwardsburg (14 ppb) and Cass County Water System (6 ppb).

The action level for the amount of lead in tap water will be lowered to 12 ppb on Jan. 1, 2025.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege

Staff Writer at The Herald-Palladium