BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — During the three years that officials have known about dangerous amounts of lead flowing from faucets in Benton Harbor, Mich., they have sent out notices, distributed filters and tried to improve water treatment. But the problems persisted, and some residents said they never heard about the risks of the toxic water coming from their taps.
Now, in scenes reminiscent of the water crisis in Flint, Mich., state officials have told Benton Harbor residents not to drink, cook or brush their teeth with tap water. Elected officials came to town Thursday promising help. And so many cars have turned out for bottled water giveaways that traffic has been snarled, a rarity in a place with 9,100 residents.
“It’s horrible to watch, to see my city like this,” Rosetta Valentine, 63, said as she directed traffic at a water distribution site where some people lined up nearly an hour before the event started.
Residents of Benton Harbor see parallels between their plight and the water crisis that unfolded less than three hours up the highway in Flint, also a majority-Black city, where a change in the water source in 2014 led to residents drinking contaminated water despite repeated assurances that it was safe. In Benton Harbor, where thousands of homes are connected to the water system by lead pipes, efforts to bring down problematic lead readings by using corrosion controls have so far failed, and officials have recently grown concerned that lead-removing filters given to residents since 2019 might not work.
The problems in Benton Harbor and Flint are extreme examples of a broader, national failure of water infrastructure that experts say requires massive and immediate investment to solve. Across the country, in cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh and Clarksburg, W.Va., Americans are drinking dangerous quantities of brain-damaging lead as agencies struggle to modernize water treatment plants and launch efforts to replace the lead service lines that connect buildings to the water system. Health officials say there is no safe level of lead exposure.
“We’ve basically just been living off our great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ investments in our water infrastructure and not been dealing with these festering problems,” said Erik D. Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group that pressed for faster action to address the contamination in Benton Harbor. He added that the lead problem was just part of “this ticking time bomb we have underground of lead pipes, of water mains that are bursting.”
President Biden has made replacing lead pipes a priority, and the infrastructure bill currently languishing in Congress would set aside billions of dollars to address that and other problems with the country’s water systems. The bill, which has some Republican support, includes about $55 billion to improve water systems, though other Republicans have expressed concerns about the costs.
But amid uncertainty about whether that bill and an expansive domestic policy package will pass, and about how much money would eventually make it to small communities like this one, the prospect of congressional help feels remote to many in Benton Harbor.
“It’s too distant and they’re going to do what they do anyway — I can’t sit here and sweat that,” said the Rev. Edward Pinkney, a pastor in Benton Harbor who was delivering bottled water to residents’ doorsteps, and who said he holds Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, responsible for fixing the problem.
Many American cities face severe water problems. In Newark, N.J., where lead problems were allowed to fester, a yearslong effort to replace lead pipes is nearly complete. But lead is only one of the growing issues in local water systems. In Wichita, Kan., hundreds of thousands of people were placed under a boil water advisory this month after a decades-old pipe burst. In Jackson, Miss., a winter storm this year froze pipes and placed much of the city under a boil advisory for weeks. And in parts of the American West, lengthy droughts have exacerbated water shortages, forcing painful decisions about how much farmers and other customers can use.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s water infrastructure a C-minus grade this year, describing the national system as “aging and underfunded” despite recent efforts to invest in improvements. Emily Feenstra, the group’s managing director for government relations and infrastructure initiatives, said the legislation in Congress offered an opportunity to make up for lost time in fixing those crumbling systems, especially in small cities that may lack the resources or expertise to make changes on their own.
“It is an urgent problem: It’s something that we have a huge opportunity to address right now with this infrastructure bill,” Ms. Feenstra said. “As we kick the can down the road by just kind of doing the bare minimum, the costs rise exponentially.”
In Benton Harbor, state officials said Thursday that they would continue distributing free bottled water, and Ms. Whitmer, who is up for re-election next year, set an 18-month goal for replacing the lead pipes connecting homes to the water system. That process will cost almost $30 million and had once been expected to take years. But the water problems in Benton Harbor are not new, and questions have mounted about why city, state and federal officials did not take more aggressive action sooner.
“If I had a magic wand, I would solve every problem that’s plaguing the city of Benton Harbor as we speak,” Mayor Marcus Muhammad said. “However, government doesn’t work that way. The city of Benton Harbor is a creature of the state, and the state is a creature of the federal government.”
Asked whether the steps taken Thursday should have occurred when officials learned of the city’s high lead levels three years ago, Elizabeth Hertel, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said she couldn’t say.
“To be honest, these should have been replaced years ago, and we shouldn’t even be in the position that we’re in, but we are,” said Ms. Hertel, who said the proposed federal infrastructure funds would help address faltering systems across Michigan.
Michigan’s lieutenant governor, Garlin Gilchrist II, said Thursday during a visit to Benton Harbor that the state had been working with the city since 2018 on water issues but that “those efforts had not yet fully addressed the challenge.” He said the decisions to provide bottled water and speed up lead line replacement were “an appropriate escalation of that response.”
Benton Harbor, which sits across Lake Michigan from Chicago, has a proud manufacturing history, a championship golf course and a downtown showing signs of revival. But the city has endured decades of disinvestment and hardship.
Some residents said they saw what happened several years ago in Flint and began worrying about the water quality. Some people in Benton Harbor stopped drinking the tap water long ago. Some had complaints about the taste. Others grew worried in recent years as test after test came back showing Benton Harbor well above the federal action level for lead of 15 parts per billion in 10 percent of samples.
But other residents, like Michael Johnson, who watched from his porch as cars lined up for a water giveaway, are only now finding out about the risks their tap water poses. The problems have lingered for years, but the response has ramped up dramatically in recent weeks. Last month, local and national environmental groups petitioned the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which last year gave the city a grant to start replacing lead pipes, to intervene more aggressively in Benton Harbor. Ms. Whitmer pledged millions in state money to fix lead lines. Then came the warnings not to drink the tap water.
“I’ve been kind of scared,” Mr. Johnson, 50, said. “I’ve been drinking a lot of juice since the day before yesterday, too, trying to stay away from the tap.”
About 45 percent of residents in Benton Harbor live in poverty, and the school system is faltering. Like Flint, Benton Harbor spent time under state-appointed emergency management. And just two years ago, Ms. Whitmer tried to close Benton Harbor High School before backing down amid protests.
For many in the city, the water is just one more indignity. And some cannot help but wonder if the situation would be different if Benton Harbor’s population were wealthier or whiter. Across the bridge in St. Joseph, a majority-white city, there is no such water emergency.
“Some people are still alive where the Blacks had their water fountain and the whites had theirs,” said Duane L. Seats II, Benton Harbor’s mayor pro-tem and the pastor of a church hosting bottled water giveaways. “So what’s the difference in this situation now?”
It has all been frightening, said Erica Moss, 26, a mother of four, who started buying up bottled water recently after hearing about the elevated lead levels on Facebook. Lead is known to damage the brain and nervous system, impair growth and contribute to behavioral problems, with especially severe effects in children.
“It’s always a problem here going on — it’s always something going on in Benton Harbor,” said Ms. Moss, who expressed doubt that a fix would materialize any time soon. “I was shocked, but not shocked at the same time.”