BENTON HARBOR — Help is on the way, Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said Friday concerning higher-than-acceptable amounts of lead in some of the city’s drinking water.
The Berrien County Health Department is partnering with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to step up efforts to make sure all city residents have access to clean, lead-free drinking water.
“We are going to aggressively attack this problem to solve it,” Muhammad said.
He said he will have more information after he meets with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday in Lansing, when she is expected to sign the 2022 budget.
The budget includes $10 million to help replace the lead water service lines in the city.
Muhammad said short-term steps are being put in place while the long-term solution of replacing the lead water service lines is happening.
“Boots are going to be on the ground, make no mistake about it,” he said. “This problem didn’t happen overnight. It won’t be resolved overnight. However, as the mayor of the city of Benton Harbor, my No. 1 priority is public safety. We’re going to do all that we can to have clean drinking water and solve the problem once and for all.”
Scott Dean, EGLE spokesperson, said in an email that a residential door-knocking campaign to make sure every city household is offered a free water filter is expected to be completed by Oct. 8.
Until that is done, he said bottled water will be provided.
Gillian Conrad of the Berrien County Health Department said she’s uncertain when the bottled water will be available or the door-knocking campaign will begin because the state is handling the logistics.
By the end of October, Dean said health officials will have developed a long-term plan to support resident health and wellness, “including access to lead mitigation measures and blood-lead level testing for adolescents and children, 6 and younger.”
He said efforts to better inform residents about the quality of the city’s water and access to water filters will be rolled out.
In addition, he said the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services will establish an ongoing “Water Ambassadors Program” to “recruit trusted non-government community members to assist with individual outreach at a grassroots level to help build trust with the community.”
Muhammad said it’s important for residents to understand why there is lead in some of the city’s drinking water. He said the water coming from the city’s water treatment plant is lead-free.
“It’s the lead lines that connect homes to the water distribution system that’s causing the problem,” he said.
Other than the $10 million that is being allocated in the state budget, Muhammad said the city expects to receive another $10 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan. That’s in addition to the $5.6 million EPA grant the city received last fall and a $3 million grant the city expects to receive from the state next month.
The city has been required to test its drinking water every six months since October 2018, when routine testing found that the amount of lead in the drinking water of sampled homes exceeded the action level.
In recent sampling periods, lead levels have been higher than in the initial lead exceedance in the fall of 2018. That year, eight homes tested above 15 parts per billion (ppb) and the highest was only 60 ppb. In 2021, 11 homes tested above 15 pbb with the highest coming in at 889 ppb.
Since January 2019, the local health department has made free water filters and cartridges available to city residents.