BENTON HARBOR — Lead levels in Benton Harbor’s tap water are decreasing, according to state results released Wednesday from the latest round of testing done by the city.
Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said 63 water samples collected this fall by the city and tested by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) show the 90th percentile was 15 parts per billion (ppb), which is right at the federal action level and less than the 24 ppb that water samples tested at earlier this year.
Only six of the 63 samples collected this fall were above 15 ppb, with the highest one testing at 48 ppb.
Despite a drop in lead levels, Muhammad said the work is not done because “no amount of lead is safe.” The required lead action level is expected to decrease from 15 ppb to 12 ppb on Jan. 1, 2025, according to state law.
“We still have a lot more testing to go,” Muhammad said when contacted by phone Wednesday.
He said none of these water samples were collected by the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, which helped collect samples for the city over the past two years.
The results of the samples collected by the council have been called into question by some city officials. They are also being used in two class action federal lawsuits that were filed this fall against Benton Harbor and the state regarding the lead in the city’s water.
The sample results were also cited in a petition filed Sept. 9 with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for emergency action under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
The samples collected this fall by the city are separate from the water samples being collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is testing the efficiency of the water filters the state has been passing out to filter out the lead. The EPA’s results aren’t expected back until February.
Benton Harbor has been required to test its tap water every six months since October 2018, when the city was put under a state advisory for its water samples testing as having 22 ppb as its 90th percentile.
Since then, the subsequent six-month sampling periods have, chronologically, been 27, 32, 23, 24, 24 and 15 (all ppb), according to a news release from EGLE.
The water samples were taken between August and November.
“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 (DWEHD), in the news release. “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.”
Oswald said corrosion control treatment in Benton Harbor is done by introducing phosphate into the water supply to coat the lead service lines and fixtures – reducing the amount of lead that dissolves when water passes through those materials.
The state announced it will continue its ongoing program to supply residents with bottled water, while additional assurance testing is ongoing in Benton Harbor to increase the community’s confidence in the safety of their drinking water.
City and state officials emphasized there is no change in the current guidance for residents to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula. EGLE and the EPA will continue to work with the city on operational and infrastructure improvements at the water system to ensure it operates in compliance with the law.
“We appreciate the work of the experts at EGLE and the care that was taken in making sure the samples were collected the right way and that the tests were done properly,” Muhammad said in Wednesday’s news release. “We are making progress in our work and this instills more confidence in the process we are following.”
Michigan’s Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) requires regular tap water testing for lead and copper, primarily at residences. When a water system has a round of sampling under the action level there are still requirements that continue until there are two consecutive rounds of testing below the action level.
The next round of testing in Benton Harbor is expected to be completed by June 30.