Benton Harbor’s Black community fuming over ‘environmental racism,’ water crisis

As Congress debates a massive bill to overhaul the nation's physical infrastructure, one Michigan city is an example of how badly help is needed, and how communities of color are often the last to receive it. John Yang traveled to Benton Harbor, where the water is undrinkable and residents' anger is at a boiling point.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As Congress debates a massive bill to overhaul the nation's physical infrastructure, one Michigan city is an example of how badly help is needed and how communities of color are often the last to receive it.

    John Yang traveled to Benton Harbor, where the water is undrinkable and residents' anger is at a boiling point.

  • John Yang:

    For the people of Benton Harbor, Michigan, a new morning routine. To make a pot of coffee or brush their teeth, they need to get their hands on bottled water.

    Earlier this month, state officials told them not to drink or cook with tap water because of high levels of lead. So the state Health Department is delivering truckloads of bottled water to this small city on the shores of Lake Michigan.

    Cherita Bynum (ph) and her 2-year-old granddaughter Kinslie (ph) got into line an hour-and-a-half before distribution started.

  • Woman:

    I never imagined it. I didn't think it was this serious, but it is.

    Carmela Patton, Resident of Benton Harbor: It smelled real funny. Sometimes, it will just come out brown.

  • John Yang:

    Benton Harbor native Carmela Patton grew up drinking the tap water. But, a few years ago, she began to sense that something wasn't right.

  • Carmela Patton:

    A couple times, I done got out of the tub, out of the shower, I itched real bad, like constant itches.

  • John Yang:

    Last year, Patton had her water tested and found it contained over 100 parts per billion of lead. Federal regulations say action must be taken after readings of just 15 parts per billion.

    Patton uses a filter on her faucet provided by the state. But now, state health officials warn that current lead levels may be too high for the filters to work. For Patton, it's all prompted questions, like about one of her daughter's developmental difficulties.

  • Carmela Patton:

    I grew up off the water. I raised her, my 19-year-old, off the water. And I'm wondering now, because I have been looking and reading, is that why she's got delays, that she got her issues going on?

  • John Yang:

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says lead harmful at any level, especially in children, because it can slow growth and result in learning and behavior problems.

    How does that make you feel?

  • Carmela Patton:

    I feel stupid. I feel stupid. But, then again, I don't. It just feel like I can't trust the state. I don't trust my mayor, because you said three years you knew this, but you never introduced us to it.

  • John Yang:

    Benton Harbor residents like Patton might never have known the water isn't safe if not for the Reverend Edward Pinkney. In 2018, he sent the water sample for testing that first revealed high lead levels.

    Since then, six consecutive sets of tests conducted by the state have shown excessively high levels in some Benton Harbor homes.

  • Reverend Edward Pinkney, Benton Harbor Community Water Council:

    It went on for three years of silence.

  • John Yang:

    Pinkney contends local officials ignored the problem.

  • Reverend Edward Pinkney:

    And that's what hurts me more than anything else. After one year, after one year, you should have done something. You should have told this community that the water was bad.

  • John Yang:

    Pinkney and his grassroots group, the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, have been distributing bottled water since 2019. In September, they asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to take emergency action. About a month later, the state issued its warning.

  • Reverend Edward Pinkney:

    That they had no concern about the community. If we had not done it, then they would not have done it themselves.

    Marcus Muhammad, Mayor of Benton Harbor, Michigan: We were doing what we could with what we had as resources.

  • John Yang:

    Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad says the city doesn't have the resources to deal with the problem all by itself. It needs the state help that Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has pledged.

  • Marcus Muhammad:

    A small city like Benton Harbor kind of got lost in translation, from our perspective. So, we're at the behest and the mercy of the state.

  • John Yang:

    Elizabeth Hertel, Michigan's director of Health and Human Services, acknowledges residents' complaints that they were left in the dark for too long.

    Elizabeth Hertel, Michigan Health and Human Services Director: We need to continue to work at how and when we're communicating. I think the only way to repair that lack of trust is to continue to show up.

  • John Yang:

    At times, Mary Alice Adams couldn't use the water to wash hair in the salon she ran in her home before the pandemic.

  • Mary Alice Adams, Benton Harbor City Commissioner:

    I'm not sure what this is.

  • John Yang:

    She's been a city commissioner for 10 years and blames city and state officials for failing to spot the problem on their own and to alert residents once it was detected.

  • Mary Alice Adams:

    I was getting very angry about it because our residents should know. But I didn't know the magnitude of it because I kept again asking. We need somebody to educate us on what these things mean. We have elderly people in the community who don't understand what a per — part per billion is.

  • John Yang:

    The crisis in Benton Harbor has echoes of another case of lead-tainted water running out of the faucets of a poor majority-Black Michigan city.

    The state reached a $600 million settlement with the residents of Flint for its role in that city's lead crisis, which emerged in 2014. Adams' daughter grew up both in Flint and Benton Harbor.

  • Mary Alice Adams:

    My baby being epileptic, I didn't know that it could actually do greater harm with a condition like that. And her, between Flint and here, she was like getting a double portion of lead.

  • John Yang:

    Adams still wonders whether lead might have played a role in her daughter's death in 2018.

  • Mary Alice Adams:

    It's sad when you watch a child take all of these different types of medications, praying that they would get better, and then drinking water, bathing in water, brushing your teeth in water. To think that lead on top of the medications caused her even graver suffering, it's sad to watch a child, and can do nothing about it.

  • John Yang:

    For many in Benton Harbor, the current water problems are just the latest case of their city being left high and dry.

    After decades of disinvestment and government neglect, the schools are struggling, crime is high, and nearly half the population lives in poverty.

    But take the short drive across a river to the neighboring city of St. Joseph and it's a stark contrast, a majority white city with a thriving downtown and safe drinking water.

  • Reverend Edward Pinkney:

    When you talk about St. Joseph, Michigan, and Benton Harbor, Michigan, you're talking about two different worlds.

  • John Yang:

    Pinkney points to a long history of manufacturing decline and so-called white flight that's left Benton Harbor struggling with few resources and a crumbling infrastructure.

    That history may be why outrage seems common among Benton Harbor residents, but surprise does not.

  • Reverend Edward Pinkney:

    Environmental racism right here, we're looking at it. Look around you. And I always talk about how different things would be if it was a white community. You know, they would call in the Army, FEMA, the Pentagon.Joe Biden would be here.

    You know, all of this would happen. But, by being a Black neighborhood, they really don't care.

  • John Yang:

    Meanwhile, residents like Carmela Patton are still paying for water they're being told not to drink.

  • Carmela Patton:

    And I got a call down there, starting with the city manager, called them. Why are we paying for bad water? Nobody returned the phone call, e-mail or anything. And the bills is pretty high.

  • John Yang:

    Meanwhile, Benton Harbor is racing to replace all 6,000 of its lead service pipes in the next 18 months. It's a project that will cost some $30 million.

    The state and the EPA have both stepped in to help pay for it. State Health Director Elizabeth Hertel says it's about time.

  • Elizabeth Hertel:

    Our water infrastructure in Michigan and across the country has been woefully neglected.

    So while these are the two communities that we have seen it thus far, I do not believe that these will be the only communities in the state of Michigan or across the country where we're going to see this.

  • John Yang:

    But for those stuck with water they can't drink, it's not fast enough.

  • Carmela Patton:

    I mean, if you want to take a bath, then you pray over it. You do what you got to do. But, at the same time, are you all bathing in it? What is your water like?

  • John Yang:

    In the meantime, the people of Benton Harbor continue to pay the price.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

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