Abandoned by the industry. Impoverished after white escape. Packed with crumbling infrastructure, struggling schools and few, if any, money to solve the problems.
For decades, this low-income black community and the majority – less than two hours from Chicago on the southeast shore of Lake Michigan – have been ravaged by a wide range of ailments shared with many other once thriving American cities.
Now the water is not safe to drink either.
A top government official last month urged Benton Harbor residents to drink and cook with bottled water, three years after tests required under a then-new Michigan law revealed high levels of brain-damaging lead in tap water.
The alarming results are another example of hidden dangers in dozens of American cities that over the last century installed lead pipes known as service lines to supply drinking water to homes. Chicago is the epicenter of the problem – there are 400,000 lead connections throughout the city, more than anywhere else in the country – but the scale of the dangers is becoming clearer as states take a closer look at aging water supplies.
“In many cases, these issues have been going on for years and just haven’t made headlines,” said Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit legal and advocacy group representing a Benton Harbor community group. “It’s a reflection of how we’ve ignored water infrastructure that’s more than a century old, mainly because it’s been out of sight, out of mind.”
In Benton Harbor, levels of the toxic metal have continued to rise since the first batch of tests, records show, despite orders from the state Environmental Protection Agency to treat Lake Michigan water with chemicals designed to form a protective coating inside lead pipes.
State officials distributed water filters in Benton Harbor. They sent messages that alerted residents to the problems of lead-in-water. But Gov. Gretchen Whitmer failed to declare a state of emergency before local activists, backed by state and national nonprofit groups, in September called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to intervene.
Whitmer, a Democrat on re-election next year, has since promised to speed up the replacement of leading service lines in Benton Harbor with a goal of completing the job by April 2023. On November 2, the EPA called for a thorough overhaul of the city’s water treatment plant after inspectors from the agency’s Chicago office found broken equipment, overcrowded chemical tanks, missing records and a number of other problems inside the lake shore.
“We had to shake them up because no one seemed to be in a hurry to do anything about this problem,” Pastor Edward Pinkney, a petitioner and head of a local water council, told the Chicago Tribune a recent morning before he was driving a caravan. of volunteers dropping bottles of bottled water on doorsteps around town.
The scene was disturbingly similar to ongoing water supplies across the state in Flint, another poor, predominantly black city, where high levels of lead and bacteria began to flow out of household taps in 2014. A state-appointed leader had reduced the cost of switching water supplies and skipper additions of anti-corrosion chemicals at the local treatment plant.
More than a dozen officials have been charged with crimes related to the Flint crisis, including former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
Benton Harbor discovered its leading problems after state lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, demanded stricter testing of water systems across Michigan in response to what happened in Flint. Similar problems have been found in dozens of other cities, including several where the population is mostly white.
Pumping anti-corrosion chemicals into water systems, for years the preferred method among utilities to limit exposure to lead, may accidentally fail for several reasons, studies have found.
“In a way, we needed Flint to happen to be able to understand that there are dangers in any city that used lead pipes,” said Elin Warn Betanzo, a former EPA engineer who played a key role in identifying what went on. wrong in Flint and now runs a Michigan-based consulting firm. “Unfortunately, we’ll be seeing more communities like Benton Harbor until we replace those pipes.”
In March, a Tribune analysis found that more than 8 out of 10 Illinois residents live in a community where lead was found in the tap water of at least one home over the past six years. Tests in dozens of homes found hundreds and even thousands of parts per year. billion lead – just as extreme as what scientists found in the same period in Flint.
Chicago’s plumbing code required the use of lead until Congress banned the practice in 1986. After years of denial by city officials that Chicago has a widespread problem, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced last year that the city would begin replacing the toxic pipes .
By early September, only three homes had been fitted with a more secure copper water pipe by the Department of Water Management, the Tribune found.
There is no safe level of exposure to lead according to the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The dangers are well documented.
Ingestion of small concentrations can permanently damage children’s developing brains, trigger learning difficulties, lack of impulse control and criminal behavior later in life. Lead also contributes to heart disease, kidney failure and other health problems; in 2018, researchers estimated that more than 400,000 deaths a year in the United States are associated with the toxic metal – 18% of all deaths.
For children in poor communities, a researcher once told the Tribune that exposure to lead is “another kick in the stomach” amid countless other social ills.
“Flint children were poisoned by so many things before the water crisis,” said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician affiliated with Hurley Children’s Hospital and Michigan State University, in an interview. ‘Poverty and racism and unemployment and violence and crumbling schools and disinvestment and neglect. The list goes on. “
Add to the list years of declining assistance from the federal government.
During an online news conference last week, the EPA’s top water regulator noted that Congress funds only 9% of the repairs and improvements requested annually by municipal water supplies, down from 63% three decades ago.
A fresh supply of cash comes from newly enacted legislation, pushed by President Joe Biden, driven by Democratic congressional leaders and backed by 13 House Republicans, including Rep. Fred Upton from Michigan, who represents Benton Harbor.
The measure allocates $ 15 billion to replace lead service lines, far less than the $ 45 billion proposed by Biden, but significantly more than what has been spent so far to address the dangers. Illinois is expected to get $ 1.7 billion and Michigan a little less.
“We want to work with communities that have a disproportionately high level of pollution – low-income, colored communities,” Radhika Fox, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water, told reporters.
More money to eliminate the lead-in-water problem is included in another proposal that Biden and his supporters call the Build Back Better Act.
Still unaddressed are federal rules that effectively keep the dangers hidden.
Over the last few months of the Trump administration, the EPA proposed an update that would allow cities to keep toxic pipes in the ground indefinitely. The biden-appointed promises several protective rules. However, it is still unclear whether the administration will hold utilities accountable when lead is found in tap water.
Flint appears to be nearing completion of its lead service cord replacement, six years after its water crisis drew worldwide attention to the city.
Rev. Allen Overton, one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that led to court mandate oversight of the municipal water system, is skeptical of allegations of progress by local and state officials.
“When you have a system in place where no one is held accountable, how will people act differently?” Overton in an interview. “I mean, you’ve poisoning an entire community, and not one person went to jail. What signal do you think it sends out over this country?”
Back in Benton Harbor, Kayla Jones shivered one cold morning while waiting for her mother to swing by with a spare key after she locked herself out. Pickney had just delivered three boxes of bottled water to his home next to Union Park, where a sign erected by the town is promoting “your tax dollars at work” on improvements.
A few days earlier, testing showed that Jones’ 2-year-old son has elevated levels of lead in his blood.
“I do not have a car right now, so it’s important that they supply water,” Jones said. “But no one should have to live this way.”
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