BENTON HARBOR — Thomas Scott, a man in his 70s, has lived in Benton Harbor for all of his life.
He can remember watching the banks leave the city, moves that he said kicked off a long period of economic decline.
Now in the middle of the lead crisis, he and his neighbors are wondering what happened.
“Somebody knew about it, but nobody did nothing about it,” Scott said.
City officials started acquiring grants for lead line replacement and sounded the alarm for lead contamination in 2018, urging residents to get their water tested. Filters began to be passed out in early 2019.
But for the residents that spoke to The Herald-Palladium this week, many were unaware of the city’s earlier and ongoing efforts and felt as if nothing had happened until Oct. 7, when residents were urged by the state to drink bottled water.
Scott was with Theodore Heggler and Michael Doss on Thursday morning at Heggler’s home. The latter two men are also lifelong Benton Harbor residents.
The city of about 10,000 residents has been the subject of national media attention for the last few weeks. Heggler said he’s wondering what took so long, adding that officials have known the water was bad “since Flint.”
“It needs to be fixed,” Heggler said.
None of the three men have had their water tested, but all have started drinking bottled water. Doss said he was going to have the pipes inside his home replaced next month.
The men discussed the grant dollars the city had received over the years and suggested that dollars had been put to other things before replacing lines. All wanted the city to make sure residents didn’t have to pay for tap water they couldn’t drink.
Dennie Brown, another resident, echoed the three men.
The former police officer said he realized he had lead in his tap water when the Rev. Edward Pinkney came by with tests for residents.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Benton Harbor already had a receipt for some of the repairs,” Brown said.
Mayor Marcus Muhammad told The Herald-Palladium the city has been replacing the lines it could with the money it had, but never had enough for all the repairs necessary at once.
“This is a $30 million plus project,” Muhammad said in a previous story. “The city has been struggling financially for decades. We don’t have the resources to replace all of the lines.”
Since Oct. 9, 880 calls have been made to the 211 phone line regarding water, which was designated the Michigan social services line. About two-thirds of those calls were for water delivery.
Lori Rollins lives in Benton Harbor with her daughter. She said she’s stopped drinking tap water a long time ago, but has kept cooking with the water.
Her house’s water has not been tested, but Rollins said she wants her and her daughter’s blood to get tested to see if there’s any lead present. She too said she felt like somebody could’ve better communicated to residents.
“We could’ve had a choice cooking with it,” Rollins said.
Nearly 90,000 cases of bottled water have been distributed to Benton Harbor from Sept. 30 to Oct. 26. This past week alone, 26 trucks have brought more than half of those cases into the city.
Benton Harbor resident Edward Johnson has both gotten water delivered and picked it up from a distribution location.
In the spring, he had the water in his 100-year-old home tested for lead.
Johnson said he couldn’t remember how much lead was in his water, but there was enough for him to get a filter. After the announcement, he switched to bottled water.
Having lived in this home and in Benton Harbor for decades, Johnson said he wonders if this push will really solve the problem. Even after replacing the service lines, lead pipes and fixtures could still be in the home.
“You still got old plumbing in the houses,” Johnson said.
Multiple residents expressed concerns that the contaminated water had already affected their health.
Heggler said his stomach has been uneasy since hearing the news.
“(I’m) feeling strange every day, having stomach problems,” Heggler said.
Brown said his kids have moved out, but his daughter recently lived with him while she was pregnant. He’s concerned how drinking the tap water affected her and his grandson.
Additionally, Brown said he will likely need dialysis and is worried about how intaking lead has affected him.
Johnson said as an older man, he’s following all necessary precautions and is not as worried as he would be if he had kids living with him.
“You just have to sit tight and see what happens,” Johnson said.