Benton Harbor’s water has had excess lead for years. Residents are only now receiving help

Residents in Michigan's Benton Harbor — a predominantly Black city — have been advised to only use bottled water for things like cooking and bathing due to lead contamination. The warning comes just a few years after Flint’s water crisis was discovered. But this is not a new discovery. Benton Harbor has detected elevated levels of lead in its water supply for years. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Residents in Benton Harbor, Michigan, a predominantly Black city in the southwestern corner of the state, have been advised to only use bottled water for things like cooking and bathing, due to lead contamination.

    The warning comes just a few years after the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, was discovered.

    And, as John Yang reports, Benton Harbor has been detecting elevated levels of lead in its water supply for years.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, today, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive directive pledging all available state resources to address this issue as quickly as possible.

    The lieutenant governor, Garlin Gilchrist, made the announcement in Benton Harbor.

  • Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist (D-MI):

    Every person deserves access to clean and safe drinking water, and every community deserves lead-free pipes. So, we are committed to doing everything that we can to ensure that every parent in Benton Harbor can give their child a glass of water with confidence.

  • John YangG:

    Gilchrist said the state would replace all the city's lead pipes within 18 months, and until that's done, the state will deliver 20 truckloads of bottled water every week.

    According to state health data, high levels of lead were first detected in the city's drinking water in 2018. And, every year since, the level of lead has only gone up.

    The Rev. Edward Pinkney is head of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, a local environmental justice group.

    Reverend Pinkney, thanks so much for joining us.

    You have been calling for this emergency directive for a while now. And for a while now, you have been on your own organizing water delivery, organizing filters delivered to homes. How satisfied are you with what the state, what the lieutenant governor said today?

  • Reverend Edward Pinkney, Benton Harbor Community Water Council:

    Well, I'm happy to hear that they have started to move forward. I'm happy to make sure that they're going to do what they said they're going to do.

    But one of the things that, to me, they feel a little short, one of the most important things is the language. The governor needs to say that the water is unsafe to drink, unsafe to brush your teeth, unsafe to cook with, unsafe to bathe with, unsafe to provide baby formula.

    She used the word abundantly cautious. That is not the language we need. I appreciate what she's saying. Don't get me wrong. I appreciate the bottled water and everything, but the language is important. We have to let the people know that it's unsafe to use this water.

  • John Yang:

    What do you hear from people in the community when you move around? What — are they anxious? Are they worried? Are they concerned? What are you hearing?

  • Reverend Edward Pinkney:

    Well, they're very concerned about the mayor not mentioning that the water was contaminated with lead.

    For three years, they concealed this information. They should have told the people that the water was contaminated, but they failed to do so. And that has led the community not to trust not only the mayor, but also the governor.

    She said she's going to do these things, but we want to see some action, some real action.

  • John Yang:

    The governor pledged some money today. Is the state spending enough on this problem?

  • Reverend Edward Pinkney:

    Oh, absolutely not.

    We need at least $35, $40 million to complete this mission. I think that she should consider — if she's going to finish in 18 months, she needs to find more money to complete this mission. The transformation of the pipes need to be done now, and she needs to figure out how she's going to pay for it.

    And don't allow the citizens of Benton Harbor to have to pay for it. That's the way it should be done.

  • John Yang:

    And 18 months is a very ambitious target. This is — they're still trying to finish up the work in Flint.

  • Reverend Edward Pinkney:

    Yes, absolutely.

    And — but remember, in Newark, New Jersey, they completed 20,000 pipelines, and they did that in 18 months. So, we only got 6,000. And I think that, if they are being aggressive, they can complete it in maybe 12 to 18 months.

  • John Yang:

    This is not a new issue in Michigan. Flint has had this issue. Both Flint and Benton Harbor, the populations are majority Black. Both, you have a high proportion of people living in poverty.

    Do you think that's a coincidence?

  • Reverend Edward Pinkney:

    No.

    What you just said is a fact. And let me say this. If there was a white person with a baby talking about lead in the water, they would call the Pentagon. They would call FEMA. They would call everybody out in the Army, everything, to make sure they get rid of all of the lead in the water.

    But being a Black community, they have different thoughts about that, because why would it take three years for the governor to even answer. You see?

  • John Yang:

    And given the fact that this has been going on, on the other side of the state — you're — Benton Harbor is on the western edge of the state on Lake Michigan.

    Given that this has been going on in Flint, on the eastern side of the state, for a number of years, do you think that the state officials should have been a little more aggressive about this, reacted a little faster?

  • Reverend Edward Pinkney:

    Absolutely.

    You see, there is no excuse for this. We applaud her for what she's doing now. But she should have did this three years ago. You know, we don't know how many children this has affected. Lead is a slow killer. What it does, it destroys the body, kidney disease, liver disease, brain disease, heart failure, all these things. Lead contributes to that.

    So we don't know how much damage has been done already. We might even lose a whole generation because of this lead and what it does to the brain. So, I'm very, very concerned.

    And I won't say it's too late, but better late than never, but she should have done it three years ago.

  • John Yang:

    The Reverend Edward Pinkney of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, thank you very much, sir.

  • Reverend Edward Pinkney:

    And thank you.

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