Accelerated Benton Harbor lead pipe replacements nearly done

Michigan officials said Wednesday that nearly all of the lead pipes in Benton Harbor, Michigan, have been replaced roughly a year after a lead water crisis forced residents to avoid their tap water and use bottled water for simple tasks like cooking and drinking.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said last fall that the city would have its lead service lines replaced within 18 months, a fast pace for a process that often takes years or decades. Five months before the deadline, about 4,500 pipes have been replaced or confirmed that they are not lead. There are only about 40 more inspections to go, state officials said.

“We are getting it done ahead of schedule,” Whitmer said in a statement.

For three straight years, tests of Benton Harbor’s water system revealed lead levels in its tap water that were too high. Lead is a health hazard that can be especially harmful to young children, stunting their development and lowering IQ scores. Benton Harbor is a majority-Black community of just under 10,000 people.

After complaints from activists last year that not enough was being done to combat the lead problem, officials said the city’s tap water should mostly be avoided and provided free bottled water to residents.

Whitmer also promised an ambitious lead pipe replacement program that would remove the main source of lead contamination in the city’s water. Local officials also passed an ordinance requiring that property owners allow the city to replace lead lines, which helped speed up the work.

“Benton Harbor has become a model for Michigan and the nation,” said Cyndi Roper, a senior policy advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In December, tests finally revealed that lead levels in the city’s tap water had dropped, indicating that treatments efforts meant to prevent pipes from leaching lead into drinking water were helping.

In early 2019, residents were offered free, at-home filters to remove lead from their drinking water, but last fall, officials told residents to rely on bottled water so the effectiveness of the filters could be tested “out of an abundance of caution.” Tests results showed the filters were working as designed and removing lead.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel said families should still rely on bottled water for basic needs “until they have their free home lead inspection” to ensure there are not other sources of lead in the home.

The Environmental Protection Agency last year identified several issues at the city’s water treatment plant and ordered officials to explore how to improve operations or possibly sell the plant. Last month, the city released a draft of its analysis. Several options such as the city retaining ownership and hiring more staff would increase water bills.

After Flint’s lead water crisis, Michigan passed the tightest regulations in the country for lowering lead in drinking water. The Biden administration has also prioritized replacing millions of lead lines around the country, including $15 billion in the federal infrastructure bill for the work. The money will significantly help, but more will be needed.

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