Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday ordered a “holistic” response to elevated levels of lead in tap water in the southwest Michigan the city of Benton Harbor and promised to speed up the replacement of its lead pipes.
Her directive that state authorities ensure Benton Harbor residents have safe water came about a week after her administration – amid criticism of government and local officials’ handling of the response – urging people to use only bottled water for cooking and drinking. The crisis has parallels Flint which became a symbol of the nation’s dilapidated water infrastructure and government mismanagement.
The Democratic governor on Thursday also pledged to replace leading service lines within 18 months, accelerating what had been a five-year timeline announced more than a month ago.
“This entire government response will continue with the urgency and urgency this threat requires,” Whitmer wrote in the order, which stipulates that residents receive free or low-cost lead-related services, including health care.
Benton Harbor, a predominantly black and mostly low-income community of 9,700, is located in Berrien County, 160 miles from Chicago.
For three years, measurements have detected lead levels well over 15 parts per billion, the federal threshold for action. After the 2014-15 water crisis Flint, Michigan introduced the country’s strongest rules for lead-in-water. However, advocacy groups, including the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, recently called on the Biden administration to help – claiming that city and state measures, including anti-corrosion measures, had been poorly implemented and ineffective.
“This is what we have been waiting for – an all-hands-on-deck approach to tackling the polluted crisis in Benton Harbor,” Pastor Edward Pinkney, chairman of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, said in a written statement.
Lead is considered harmful at all levels, and children are particularly vulnerable as it can slow growth and lead to learning and behavioral problems.
Senior government officials, including Lieutenant Garlin Gilchrist II and Health Director Elizabeth Hertel, were in Benton Harbor on Thursday to announce the response plan, along with Mayor Marcus Muhammad and black church leaders. Gilchrist said communities of the same size with lead excesses must replace 7% of lead pipes annually, which takes 14 years.
“In Benton Harbor. we strive to get there in 18 months. … We are determined to get it done as quickly as we can, he says.
Republicans including one who tries to run against her in 2022 – James Craig – criticized the governor. They questioned why she did not attend the press conference and accused her of waiting too long to act.
“Whitmer and her administration’s inaction in addressing this issue is another failed promise to add to the growing list and this will have catastrophic consequences for Benton Harbor residents,” said Gustavo Portela, a spokesman for the state GOP.
Whitmer’s directive states that residents must have access to free bottled water indefinitely. Government officials must provide residents with clear and up-to-date information on the harmful effects of lead exposure, change of service lines and lead data.
Households with children or pregnant women who are eligible for Medicaid can receive a free examination of and reduction of lead risks at home.
Whitmer’s predecessor, Republican Rick Snyder faces criminal prosecution for the Flint crisis, in which executives he appointed changed the water source to save money and the city followed the poor advice of state regulators not to apply anti-corrosion treatments.
Follow David Eggert at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00