Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad holds a news conference Tuesday at city hall to update the public on the water crisis in Benton Harbor.

LANSING — The national spotlight was on Benton Harbor on Thursday as the state’s House Oversight Committee in Lansing tried to figure out why the city’s water crisis wasn’t highlighted as a priority sooner.

Three years ago, some of the city’s drinking water was found to have higher-than-acceptable amounts of lead in it, with state-mandated testing every six months showing that those levels remained high.

State Rep. Steven Johnson, chair of the committee, wanted to know what changed in the past 30 days to turn the situation into a crisis.

“It feels like we’re going from zero to 100 miles per hour here,” he said.

The state’s short-term response has been to distribute free water filters certified to remove lead to residents through the Berrien County Health Department. The long-term solution of replacing lead service lines was expected to take 20 years due to its high cost.

But the ability of the water filters to remove the lead was recently called into question, said Eric Oswald, drinking water division director at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

Liesl Clark, director of EGLE, said test results on how well the filters are working on the city’s water should be back in a few weeks from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“We hope this study will result in restored community confidence in water filters, which are an important component in our long-term safe drinking water strategy,” she said.

Until the test results are back, the state is urging residents to not drink the water.

The conversation eventually veered toward the quality of Benton Harbor’s water, in which Clark admitted city residents should consider the water to be unsafe to drink.

Clark had dodged the question four times before being asked point blank by Johnson: “Let’s just talk like normal people. It’s a normal question. Is the water in Benton Harbor safe to drink or not?”

“No, it’s not,” Clark said. “People should be drinking bottled water.”

Last week, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II came to Benton Harbor to announce that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive directive with the goal to replace all of the city’s lead service lines in 18 months.

On Thursday, Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad told the committee that the city has received $18.6 million in state and federal money and has started replacing lead service lines – but more is needed.

He said the city needs another $11.4 million to get the job done in 18 months.

“I know it’s a Mount Everest undertaking, however, I think that if we work together, we might be surprised,” he said.

Muhammad said the only way for the problem to be solved is with money.

Location of the problem

Clark said the water leaving the city’s water treatment plant has no lead in it.

“High lead level tests in Benton Harbor homes result from the water picking up the lead on its way as it moves to the faucets through the service lines and other plumbing that contains lead,” he said. “This basic truth is the same for every or nearly every home in Michigan with elevated lead drinking levels.”

The lead service lines from the property line into the home has historically been the responsibility of the homeowner. But recent state law is now requiring municipalities to replace 5 percent of the lead service lines at no cost to the homeowners.

Clark said there are Michigan communities throughout the state that have a problem with lead service lines, with Hamtramck residents being notified earlier this week that their drinking water was found to have high lead levels in it.

She said it would cost $2 billion to remove all of the lead service lines in the state. Clark added that total doesn’t include the cost to replace the lead fixtures and pipes inside a home.

“We’ve all been working on these water infrastructure issues, cataloging it, we’re working through asset management plans whenever possible with communities to help them prioritize where they’re spending their dollars,” she said.

Another way municipalities are trying to stop lead from leaching into the home’s drinking water until the pipes can be replaced is by adding corrosion control to the water.

Oswald said that in March 2019, the city started doing this, but it could take up to two years before the pipes are coated adequately.

“We are starting to see some good improvements in this last monitoring period,” he said. “We’re hopeful that that corrosion control chemical is taking effect.”

Even this is only a short-term solution, Oswald said, because the coating can easily be knocked off if the pipe is jarred by, for example, construction.

“It only takes one mistake to strip that coating away,” he said.

Johnson said at the end of the meeting that the committee will make recommendations sometime in the future.

Thursday’s hearing was held after the state Senate Oversight Committee announced Monday it was requesting a list of documents from the state over its response to the elevated lead levels in Benton Harbor’s drinking water.

Committee Chair Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, sought correspondence among EGLE officials on the use of corrosion controls in Benton Harbor’s water, on testing of the city’s water and on the lead levels.

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

Staff Writer at The Herald-Palladium