ST. LOUIS – The amount of lead in Benton Harbor, Michigan’s drinking water has declined, new testing shows, after three straight years of elevated results compelled residents to consume bottled water and prompted a hurried effort to replace old pipes.
Lead levels in the majority Black city’s drinking water are now just within standards set by the state that if exceeded, force a utility to take corrective action and inform residents of a problem, according to state officials. Residents have worried about the effect on their families' health, as lead can slow cognitive development and is especially dangerous for children.
Michigan officials said the new results indicate that corrosion control to prevent pipes from leaching lead into drinking water is helping. But the nearly 10,000 residents of Benton Harbor should still use bottled water for basic activities such as drinking and cooking, officials said.
“Everything is going to continue as it has previously, it’s just that the data is showing us that the corrosion control is working. We need to keep at it, keep improving it and keep working at it,” said Eric Oswald, director of the division that oversee drinking water at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
The state provides free bottled water for Benton Harbor’s residents, but picking it up can be time consuming and tasks like cooking can quickly use up personal supplies. Homebound residents can ask for deliveries.
Since early 2019, residents have been offered free at-home filters designed to remove lead from the tap. In October, the state said it was reviewing the effectiveness of those filters “out of an abundance of caution” and issued guidance for residents to broadly use bottled water.
Oswald said preliminary results indicate that when filters are installed correctly, they are working properly. Taylor Gillespie, an EPA spokesperson, said filters often aren’t installed properly in part because residents haven’t been shown how. She said data won’t be available until February.
Once the study is complete, state officials will decide whether bottled water should continue to be broadly used, Oswald said.
Benton Harbor’s recent water system tests reveal 15 parts per billion of lead; any more and it would exceed Michigan standards. Testing from earlier in the year produced levels of 24 ppb.
The highest site sampled had 48 ppb of lead. Testing from earlier in the year produced a few results in the 100s of ppb.
In the wake of the Flint water crisis, Michigan passed the nation’s tightest requirements for reducing lead in drinking water, implementing new testing standards and timelines for lead pipe replacement. Despite those changes, advocacy groups in September told the EPA in a petition that city and state officials had not acted quickly enough to address Benton Harbor’s problems.
Nicholas Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center whose name is on the petition, said Benton Harbor has suffered from discrimination and a history of disinvestment in its infrastructure.
“That no doubt played a central role in creating this problem,” Leonard said previously.
The state’s response accelerated this fall. In addition to providing bottled water, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has promised to replace all of the city’s lead service lines, which connect buildings to the water main, within 18 months — far faster than is normal. That effort is just getting underway.
The Democratic governor in November ordered a review of the state's drinking water rules with the aim of reducing lead levels further. Also, the EPA ordered the water system to make improvements.
Cyndi Roper, a senior policy advocate with the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, said the state should continue providing free bottled water until lead service line replacement is finished and all water quality concerns are addressed.
“Fifteen parts per billion is still high,” she said. “This is a long and ongoing lead in drinking water crisis in the community of Benton Harbor.”
Across the U.S., millions of lead service lines are underground. The recently passed infrastructure bill secured $15 billion for lead service line replacement and the reconciliation package pending in Congress includes billions more — money that advocates have said is vital but will not be enough to remove every lead pipe.
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