Accelerated Benton Harbor lead pipe replacements nearly done

By MICHAEL PHILLIS – Associated Press

Michigan officials said Wednesday that nearly all lead plumbing in Benton Harbor, Michigan, has been replaced about a year after a lead water crisis forced residents to ditch their tap water and use bottled water for simple tasks like cooking and drinking.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said last fall that the city’s main utility lines would be replaced in 18 months, a fast pace for a process that often takes years or decades. Five months before the deadline, about 4,500 tubes have been replaced or confirmed not to contain lead. According to state officials, only about 40 more inspections are pending.

“We’re doing it ahead of time,” Whitmer said in a statement.

For three years, testing of Benton Harbor’s water system found excessive levels of lead in tap water. Lead is a health hazard that can be particularly harmful to young children, stunting their development and lowering IQ scores. Benton Harbor is a majority black community of just under 10,000 residents.

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

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

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

Finally, in December, tests found that lead levels in the city’s tap water had fallen, suggesting treatment efforts aimed at preventing pipes from leaching lead into drinking water were helping.

In early 2019, residents were offered free home filters to remove lead from their drinking water, but last fall officials urged residents to rely on bottled water so the filters’ effectiveness could be tested “as a precaution”. . ” The test results showed that the filters worked as designed and removed lead.

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said families should continue to rely on bottled water for basic needs “until they have their free home lead inspection” to ensure there are no other sources of lead in the home.

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

After Flint’s lead water crisis, Michigan enacted the toughest regulations in the country to reduce lead in drinking water. The Biden administration has also prioritized replacing millions of lead lines across the country, including $15 billion in the federal infrastructure bill for the works. The money will help significantly, but more is needed.

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