Flint 2.0? Predominantly Black Michigan city grapples with lead in water

According to reports, the residents of Benton Harbor have been struggling with lead in their water for as many as three years.

The city of Benton Harbor is the second majority-Black city in the state of Michigan to experience high amounts of lead in its drinking water. 

Residents have been advised not to use their tap water for drinking, bathing, brushing teeth or cooking “out of an abundance of caution” because of the lead contamination crisis. 

A resident of Benton Harbor, Michigan, reacts to news of the lead contamination of the predominantly Black city’s water. (Photo: Screenshot: NBC News)

According to reports, the residents of Benton Harbor have been struggling with the lead issue for as many as three years — and what has been described as a lax response from local and state officials. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council, along with local organizations including the Benton Harbor Community Water Council — which is helmed by Rev. Edward Pinkney — filed an emergency appeal to the Environmental Protection Agency early last month, demanding federal attention. Residents have called the high lead levels “environmental injustice.” 

The water crisis in Benton Harbor mirrors the one in Flint, which captivated the nation when publications across America reported that in 2014, due to a budget crisis, the state of Michigan switched Flint off a water source with treatment from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River. As a result, “foul-smelling, discolored, and off-tasting water piped into Flint homes for 18 months was causing skin rashes, hair loss and itchy skin,” according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental advocacy group.

The Guardian reports that in 2018, Benton Harbor was found to have lead contamination of 22 parts per billion in its tap water, which is even higher than the Flint water crisis at its height. There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, but the EPA takes federal action at any level above 15 ppb. 

Pinkney is calling on Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to declare a state of emergency for his city, which could speed up the timeline to replace its aging water lines.

“You need to call for a state of emergency right now,” Pinkney said, per The Guardian. “That will get the attention of the people in Benton Harbor.” He also said that the state was not using forceful enough language to convince the citizens not to use the water. “Tell the people that the water is unsafe. Just tell them.”

“How do you justify three years of documented contamination and do nothing?” Pinkney asked NBC News. “We appreciate the bottles of water, but the bottles of water are just a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.”

Benton Harbor is 46 miles southwest of Kalamazoo, in the western part of Michigan. It has a population of only 10,000 residents, according to the 2010 census. However, its metro area, which is made up of several other cities, has more than 100,000 residents. It is unclear if the crisis is contained to Benton Harbor alone. 

The city is 89% African American, with a median family income of $17,471 in 2010. Approximately 39% of families in the city live below the poverty line. 

Officials in Flint failed to apply corrosion inhibitors to the water, causing it to leach lead from the city’s dated water pipes. At the height of the crisis, a nearby General Motors plant would not even use the water on cars. 

It resulted in felony charges for former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and eight others.

Late last year, the victims of the Flint water crisis were awarded more than $600 million, with the majority of funds going to the families of children who have been affected. 

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