BENTON HARBOR — More than 11,000 pages of documents highlighting the elevated lead levels in Benton Harbor’s drinking water were released by state officials Thursday.
The mass release was in response to a request for information from state Sen. Ed McBroom, chair of the Michigan Senate Oversight Committee, and to 28 Freedom of Information Act requests filed over the past 18 months, according to Liesl Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).
Clark said more documents will be released in the coming weeks.
On Thursday, Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said he hopes the release of documents doesn’t result in “paralysis by analysis.”
“We identified the problem in October of 2018,” he said when contacted by phone. “Now, what are you going to do about it?”
The pages include a multitude of reports on the city’s water system that document what needs to be fixed.
Muhammad said the solution to those problems has always been money and that only state legislators have the power to provide the money.
“Not even the governor has the power to give us the money,” he said. “All she can do is recommend.”
Replacing all of the city’s lead service lines is projected to cost $30 million. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asked state legislators to provide the city with $20 million in funding. However, the city ended up receiving $10 million in the state’s 2022 budget.
Two weeks ago, Muhammad testified in front of the House Oversight Committee in Lansing that the city needs another $11.4 million to fully fund removing all lead service lines in the city.
He said he hasn’t heard anything back from state legislators since he testified, including from state Rep. Pauline Wendzel and state Sen. Kim LaSata.
Attempts to contact LaSata and Wendzel were unsuccessful Thursday.
Muhammad said providing safe drinking water to residents shouldn’t be political.
“I think the witch hunt and the ‘I gotcha’ politics needs to cease and desist immediately,” he said. “As it stands right now, the city of Benton Harbor has become a political football, and it’s being punted back and forth. ... The classic conclusion of environmental racism is to blame the victim.”
Water systems are put under a state advisory for lead when lead levels in their drinking water exceed the action level of 15 parts per billion.
Clark included a nine-page letter to McBroom when the documents were released, summarizing the problem not only in Benton Harbor, but throughout the state.
“Just last week, EGLE announced seven new (action level exceedances) for the current cycle of (lead and copper rule) testing, including Hamtramck, Manchester and Wayne,” she wrote. “The 90th percentile value for those ALEs ranged from 16 ppb to 92 ppb.”
Since Michigan strengthened its lead and copper rules in 2018, Clark said 50 different water supplies have been put under advisories for having higher-than-acceptable amounts of lead.
“The situation in Benton Harbor is unique and particularly urgent, but it is also part and parcel of a statewide lead drinking water challenge that Michigan must more fully acknowledge and address,” she wrote.
Even though the state has made strides to educate residents regarding lead in drinking water, she said more is needed. Clark said she knows firsthand, from visits with residents at water distribution sites, that “the desired information has not fully reached and connected with many Benton Harbor residents.”
“This gap should serve as an important point of reflection and discussion for officials and stakeholders at all levels of government. I hope you will join my state agency colleagues and me in a forward-looking conversation about how we can improve the whole-of-government approach to engaging communities like Benton Harbor on vital public health issues such as this one.”
The 11,000 pages of released documents can be viewed at www.michigan.gov/cleanwater.
New executive directive
Whitmer signed a new executive directive Thursday “seeking to strengthen the state of Michigan’s water regulations, rules and policies,” according to a news release from her office.
“The six-part directive will take several steps to tighten regulations, seek to deliver more resources, expand community engagement, and more,” Whitmer said in the release. “Our top priority here remains guaranteeing safe drinking water for every Michigander, no matter who they are or where they live. We will not rest until every community has safe drinking water and every parent feels confident to give their kid a glass of water.”
Broken down, the directive:
- mandates a line-by-line review of existing laws and regulations governing water.
- identifies the state and local resources needed to better assist public water suppliers, collect data and enforce water laws.
- analyzes efforts around education and engagement to ensure Michiganders who live in a community experiencing water quality issues get the information they need to protect themselves.
- directs departments to continue finding ways to reduce lead in drinking water, including a proposal for the rapid and safe removal of lead service lines across the state, which are a primary source of lead contamination in drinking water.
- examines existing data collection and sharing practices, with the goal of strengthening the collection and transfer of information and formalizing best practices already in place.
- finds opportunities for equitable regional planning in the sourcing, treatment and delivery of drinking water.