The EPA has issued an order for Benton Harbor and the state to correct deficiencies and violations discovered during an inspection of city's water system.

BENTON HARBOR — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an order Tuesday for Benton Harbor and the state to correct deficiencies and violations found during a September inspection of the city’s water treatment system.

Since the state first put the city under a lead advisory three years ago, Mayor Marcus Muhammad said a list of deficiencies had been identified at the water plant. However, he said these violations don’t have anything to do with the level of lead found in the tap water.

“As the mayor, I’m excited and I’m happy to see it because as we improve the distribution and remove the lead service lines, we’re also improving the filtration plant, which is a holistic approach to providing safe and clean drinking water to the residents,” Muhammad said Tuesday.

Muhammad said the order is restorative rather than punitive. He added it’s not an unfunded order.

“They’ll be hiring someone to help us with all of the compliance,” he said. “That person will be paid by the EPA so it won’t be at any cost to the residents.”

According to a news release, the EPA is ordering the city and state to take several actions based on the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, including:

  • Informing consumers when lead action level exceedances are detected in drinking water.
  • Improving the applications of chlorine for disinfection and orthophosphate for corrosion control.
  • Implementing stricter requirements for better monitoring of residual disinfectants and its byproducts.
  • Making filter repairs at the treatment plant.
  • Using an independent third-party to conduct an analysis of alternatives for the long-term operation and maintenance of the system.

“The people of Benton Harbor have suffered for too long. EPA is fully engaged and working to support the community, and today, we are taking a critical next step to ensure that drinking water is safe and reliable,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in the release. “Exposure to lead in children can cause irreversible and life-long health effects, including decreasing IQ, focus and academic achievement. The water infrastructure in Benton Harbor, like many cities across the country, needs upgrades and investments to build resiliency and protect people from lead.”

EPA officials are working with state agencies, city officials and the drinking water system on medium- and long-term solutions, which are essential to ensuring the health and well-being of residents in the community, the release stated.

A separate statement from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) highlighted that the deficiencies are part of “a legacy of decades of disinvestment in the city’s century-old water system, amplified by the myriad challenges of an environmental justice community with shrinking population served by a water system designed for twice the customers and twice the rate base.”

There are no fines associated with this action.

“This is not intended as a punitive exercise, but rather a transparent way of identifying the pressing needs of the Benton Harbor community so that federal, state, local and community partners can work together to prioritize them as we continue our work to ensure all Benton Harbor residents have access to safe drinking water,” EGLE Director Liesl Clark said in the news release. “EGLE will continue to work to assist residents with both the system problems evident at the facility, and, more pressingly, the current lead issue that is, appropriately, the immediate focus of our resources.”

A city’s timeline

In 2018, the state put the city under a lead advisory after 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.

City officials have said the suspected cause of the lead is the lead service lines delivering water from the water mains maintained by the city into each home. Until the lead service lines could be replaced, the state was handing out free, certified water filters through the Berrien County Health Department.

The city was thrust into the national spotlight about a month ago when the ability of the water filters to filter out the lead was questioned due to the city’s unique water composition. Benton Harbor obtains its water from Lake Michigan like several municipalities around the lake, including St. Joseph and Benton Township.

Taylor Gillespie, strategic communications coordinator with the EPA, said via email that the agency is studying how well the water filters are working on Benton Harbor water and will share updates on the study “as soon as possible.”

Benton Harbor has received several grants and low-interest loans to help replace the lead service lines, which is projected to cost at least $30 million. The city has 6,000 water service lines, with about half of then active.

State officials project that it will cost more than $2 billion to replace all of the lead service lines statewide.

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

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive directive in October ordering all state agencies to help the city replace the lead service lines in the next 18 months.

Last fall, the EPA awarded $5.6 million to Benton Harbor under a Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act grant, which is expected to replace 888 lead service lines. The city had asked for almost $20 million.

Two weeks ago, Muhammad asked members of the state’s House Oversight Committee in Lansing to approve another $11.4 million to help remove all of the lead service lines in the city.

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

Staff Writer at The Herald-Palladium