Governor Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday she plans to pump $ 20 million into Benton Harbor to replace the lead pipes that have resulted in repeated breaches of the state’s water safety limits.
The governor’s announcement came after the Detroit News reported the six direct lead exceedances in Benton Harbor that caused anger and frustration among residents concerned about lead pollution in their drinking water. Whitmer said she would like the pipes to be replaced in five years.
Whitmer’s plan through the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy is part of a proposed $ 200 million expansion of its state Clean Water Plan to remove lead lines across the state. The governor urged Republican-led lawmakers to use federal COVID stimulus money from the U.S. bailout plan to help keep the public safe drinking water.
The Republican legislature and the Democratic government of Whitmer continue to negotiate the next year’s budget before the fiscal year begins October 1st.
“Every Michigander deserves access to safe drinking water and every community deserves lead-free pipes,” the governor said in a press release. “We need to upgrade our water infrastructure long overdue and build on the advances we have made under the MI Clean Water Plan to replace lead pipes, repair sewer systems and combat PFAS in our water supplies. I will work to give people the help they need now and make sustained, structural investments in infrastructure to protect public health. “
The city of southwest Michigan issued a public statement last month that found that more than 10% of recent water samples from 78 households exceeded the 15 parts per billion action level for lead, resulting in an average reading of 24 parts per billion led.
Rev. Edward Pinkney, President of Benton Harbor Community Water Council, welcomed Whitmer’s promise to “help the people of Benton Harbor, but we are dried up from years of waiting for clean water.
“The people in Benton Harbor have been living with lead-contaminated drinking water for at least three years, which is why we urgently need clean water right now. Today, “Pinkney said in a statement on Wednesday. “Therefore, community members of Benton Harbor, along with allied organizations, will tomorrow ask the federal government to provide an emergency supply of clean drinking water. We cannot wait a day longer to seek help for our elders and our children who are our future. “
Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad, who, along with local community groups, has urged speeding up the pipe replacement process, welcomed Whitmer’s move.
“I am grateful for this investment in our community and have committed to work with our partners at the state level to help families gain access to safe drinking water,” said the mayor. “My office, Berrien County Health Department and State Health Department are committed to providing filters to families and using the $ 20 million investment to replace 100% of our leading service lines in five years. I know that we can do this together. “
Elin Betanzo, a former environmental protection agency officer and water quality expert who helped uncover the Flint water crisis, praised the efforts and said there was an urgent need to act quickly.
“State lawmakers must approve the new funding to bring out the lead lines as no one should drink water from a lead service line,” she said. “It is also important that the US Congress fully fund the replacement of lead service lines in budget reconciliation.”
The Democrats are trying to get a $ 3.5 trillion budget proposal through Congress, but have encountered roadblocks in the Senate.
State officials also said they plan to ensure all families in Benton Harbor have access to free drinking water filters installed at home and conduct awareness training during the accelerated upgrade of the water infrastructure. Benton Harbor recently reported a lead excess that violated Michigan’s strict lead and copper rule.
“The health of everyone in Michigan is closely related to the quality of their drinking water,” says Liesl Clark, director of EGLE. “This $ 200 million proposal to modernize our aging, inadequate water infrastructure in communities across Michigan and accelerate relief efforts in Benton Harbor is an important step in protecting public health. Water infrastructure is a priority and we will continue to work together to ensure that all Michigan residents have access to safe drinking water. “
State officials said Benton Harbor has approximately 6,000 water supply lines, most of which are made of lead or unknown materials.
“I urge DC executives to come together to pass the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Bill so that we can replace top service lines nationwide and ensure that all parents can give their child a glass of water at the dinner table with the confidence that it’s safe, “said Whitmer called.
The estimated cost of replacing Benton Harbor water supply lines is nearly $ 30 million. As part of the existing $ 500 million MI Clean Water Plan, which includes $ 102 million specifically for mainline replacement, EGLE will raise $ 3 million next month through the State Revolving Fund Benton Harbor awarded.
In addition, earlier this year the State Department backed Benton Harbor’s efforts to secure a $ 5.6 million federal grant to begin replacing its lead pipes.
“Safe drinking water in Benton Harbor and other communities is critical to DHHS in fulfilling its mission to improve the health, safety and prosperity of all Michigan residents,” said Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state health and welfare department Services department. “If we remove senior service lines, we can provide health and opportunity to all Michiganers and promote health equity.”
The proposed $ 200 million expansion and the $ 102 million included in the existing MI Clean Water Plan will provide $ 302 million to replace senior service lines across the country, officials said.
Michigan has one of the strictest regulations in the country regarding lead exposure in drinking water. A 2018 rule of the Snyder administration requires municipalities to replace all of their leading service lines by 2038.
The governor also created the Office of the Clean Water Public Advocate to investigate drinking water issues, make recommendations to EGLE and the governor’s office to work with communities like Benton Harbor, and to ensure their concerns are addressed and resourced.