Activists call reliance on filters “misguided and superficial;” want water distribution decisions made with community involvement
In a sharply-worded letter to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Tuesday, Benton Harbor drinking water activists increased pressure on the governor saying that the state’s responses to the lead problem have been insufficient.
The activists said the Benton Harbor community has been consuming lead contaminated water that contains a “potent irreversible neurotoxin” for at least three years.
“The most important action for you (Whitmer) to take right now is to ask the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to declare a public health emergency for the City of Benton Harbor and to have state officials urgently declare the need for residents to stop drinking the tap water,” activists said in the letter.
They also called on Whitmer to provide safe drinking water through bottled water and water tankers and want that water available “until at least six months after each lead service line is replaced.”
In early September, Whitmer announced a $20 million plan to replace Benton Harbor’s lead water pipes within five years. The plan was launched one day before the activists filed a formal petition with the U.S. EPA to use its emergency authority to intervene in Benton Harbor’s crisis.
The EPA has direct oversight authority for drinking water issues and used it, after some delay, in the Flint water crisis. EPA has yet to take action on Benton Harbor’s intervention request.
In a statement Monday, an EPA spokesperson said the agency “is in active communication with concerned residents, community groups, Michigan’s Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and local officials regarding the drinking water in Benton Harbor.”
EPA has met with the petitioners who requested emergency intervention and state officials and is working to “expeditiously address the drinking water needs of the community,” according to the statement.
In the letter to Whitmer, activists called Michigan’s focus on providing water filters “misguided and superficial” and said they “will not be effective with many residents who have lost their trust in the government's ability to ensure their drinking water is safe.”
The activists said since its original petition with EPA was filed, additional water quality issues have been identified. Specifics were not provided in the letter.
In closing, the letter expressed environmental justice concerns. Benton Harbor is a predominantly Black community.
“This country’s White dominant culture perpetuates behavior that allows those in charge to substitute their judgment for the demands of Black community groups that live in their communities and have worked on the problems for years,” the activists said.
Activists called on Whitmer to include community voices “as full participants” in addressing Benton Harbor’s drinking water issues.
Environmental justice has been a stated priority for Gov. Whitmer and President Joe Biden. Michigan has clean water and environmental justice public advocates. It is unclear what roles they play related to Benton Harbor based on inquiries to EGLE.
Some Whitmer cabinet members including EGLE Director Liesl Clark were copied on the letter as were Attorney General Dana Nessel and Mark Totten, the governor’s Chief Legal Counsel.
The letter to the governor was signed by Rev. Edward Pinkney, President of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, Nick Leonard, Executive Director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and Cyndi Roper, Senior Policy Advocate and Jeremy Orr, Senior Staff Attorney, both of the Natural Resources Defense Council and other petitioners.
A request to comment has been made with Gov. Whitmer’s office and will be posted here if received.
Lessons learned from Flint's lead poisoning experience; Greater equity awareness leads some groups to take a stronger stance.
In 2017 I ran into Noah Hall at a Great Lakes conference in Chicago. Hall is an environmental law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and is widely known for his legal and policy expertise on water issues.
I talked with Hall in what was an impromptu conversation in a corridor before he made a presentation. The conversation turned to the Flint water crisis and he talked about how, in general, mainstream environmental groups and others said little to nothing about Flint’s situation.
Curious, I asked if he would speak to the issue on the record in an interview. He agreed and started by saying “absolutely, the environmental community has a lot of looking in the mirror to do on their own shortcomings on the Flint water crisis.” The interview is here, four minutes.
Hall’s comments echoed my experience with environmental groups during the Flint crisis. I tried to see how the groups saw it and got either no response or a vague, that's not in our area of expertise comment.
Fast forward to the current Benton Harbor drinking water crisis, which looks a lot like Flint’s where petitioners have asked the EPA to use its emergency authority to intervene in Michigan. EPA has said it is reviewing the request.
I asked a select group of well-known environmental groups for a statement and if they supported the request for emergency intervention by the U.S. EPA.
Here is an edited version of their responses.
Michigan Environmental Council, Charlotte Jameson Chief Policy Officer
"We proudly stand by and support the Benton Harbor Community Water Council's petition to the EPA. The state has known about lead-laden drinking water in Benton Harbor for several years, but has yet to recognize the situation as the environmental justice crisis it is. No amount of lead is safe, and we need an immediate and robust response that matches the severity this situation is to city residents.”
Jameson also called on Michigan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to extend emergency water resources to the community while waiting for the EPA response.
National Wildlife Federation, Mike Shriberg, regional Executive Director Great Lakes Regional Center
“The National Wildlife Federation strongly supports the citizens of Benton Harbor and believes that the U.S. EPA and state of Michigan need to provide residents with clean, safe water now, as well as a plan to remove lead-based pipes immediately.”
Alliance for the Great Lakes, Joel Brammeier, CEO and President
“We support the petitioners’ demands for emergency action to keep the people of Benton Harbor safe. As residents and the science have demonstrated for several years, drinking water in the community is unsafe and lead service lines should be replaced without delay.”
Brammeier emphasized the importance of equity and said “race and wealth should not be determining factors in access to safe, clean and affordable Great Lakes drinking water.”
The Nature Conservancy in Michigan, Rich Bowman, Policy Director
Bowman said the emergency petition to intervene is a “legal process question” and as he isn’t a lawyer, he didn’t comment on the petition.
Bowman said with the likelihood of federal funding in the picture “that the resources will be available to address this issue and I genuinely believe (Michigan’s) Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy and the city want to address this.”
“I suspect the bigger challenge for the agency was not a desire to address it, but a recognition that Benton Harbor isn’t the only community facing this issue and any financial assistance provided to them by the State establishes a precedent that the State has to provide the same type of assistance to all communities with this problem,” Bowman said.
Environmental Law and Policy Center, Chicago
Spokesperson Judith Nemes said “we’re not engaged here and wouldn’t have anything specific enough to say.” ELPC has an office in Grand Rapids.
A list of groups who signed the petition to the EPA which includes Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and For Love of Water, is here.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center respond to Michigan EGLE's announcement that it's taking action in the Benton Harbor water crisis.
The Benton Harbor citizens who asked the U.S. EPA to intervene were supported by NRDC and GLELC activists and attorneys.
Here, they respond to EGLE's action announced yesterday, September 23.
GLELC Executive Director, Nick Leonard
Leonard said EGLE's program is a "good start" but he wants more details before he can assess its effectiveness. He wants details about the bottled water distribution program including how much water will be available for each home and for how long.
Leonard also questioned the reliance on filters which are a key component of the EGLE plan. A study in Newark showed that filters still allowed unacceptable levels of lead to flow through. He also wants the citizens who will do community outreach and education assistance based on the EGLE plan to be compensated. "These residents are providing a service and we believe they should be compensated for it," Leonard said.
NRDC Michigan Senior Policy Advocate, Cyndi Roper
Roper said people's "trust has been violated" and drinking water has not been safe for at least three years," the Detroit Free Press reported. She referred to Flint where there were ongoing issues related to filter maintenance and proper use. "A swing through the community dropping off filters and having a conversation about filter use" isn't enough, she said.
Roper also questioned the the fixed-date cutoff of bottled water saying it needs to continue until "we are well beyond clearly demonstrating these filters are effective."
Updated 9/23 , 7:00 p.m. cdt. Additional comments from Cyndi Roper
Additionally, Roper said the petitioners are still requesting that EPA take emergency action because the State of Michigan is not protecting the people of Benton Harbor from lead in drinking water.
"Further, the Governor has not declared an emergency and has not instructed residents to stop drinking the water despite at least three years with high lead levels. It is beyond comprehension," Roper said.
A little context here.
In the Flint water crisis, NRDC petitioned the EPA to use its emergency authority to intervene as Michigan's DEQ, now EGLE, was failing. EPA declined to intervene saying it was monitoring DEQ's action. That was after taking two months to make a decision. It ultimately did intervene but valuable time was lost.
Asked about making a decision on whether to intervene in Benton Harbor, EPA said this morning that it is "still in the process of reviewing the petition and don’t have an additional update at this time."
Michigan's Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy provided information today on action its taking "right now" to assist Benton Harbor citizens with its drinking water quality issues.
From EGLE spokesperson Scott Dean Wednesday, Sep 22.
The multi-agency team of EGLE, MDHHS and county health is in action to get people the help they need right now while also making lasting, structural investments in the state’s water infrastructure system. Following are actions that are currently underway in the short-term to ensure Benton Harbor residents have the support and resources they need:
• A residential door-knocking program is being launched to provide assurance that every household in Benton Harbor has been visited and offered a free water filter as part of an enhanced filter distribution effort. The plan is to complete this effort by October 8, 2021.
• Bottled water will also be provided for distribution within the community until this assurance work around filters is completed October 8, 2021.
• An expanded public education and community outreach campaign to increase awareness of the city’s current water quality and the availability of water filters and resources for residents will also be rolled out to better inform Benton Harbor residents.
• By the end of October, health officials have committed to developing a longer term plan to ensure public health resources are available to support resident health and wellness, including access to lead mitigation measures and blood-lead level testing for adolescents and children 6 and younger.
MDHHS will establish an ongoing ‘Water Ambassadors Program’ to recruit trusted non-government community members to assist with individual outreach at a grass roots level to help build trust with the community.
Benton Harbor residents wait for the U.S. EPA to decide if their Flint-like lead in drinking water problems deserve emergency status.
Approaching two weeks ago, residents of Benton Harbor, MI supported by two legal environmental groups, filed a petition with the U.S. EPA for the agency to immediately use its emergency authority to intervene in its drinking water crisis.
The issue, lead levels in the water that surpassed those of Flint when its crisis garnered local, state national and international attention. Scroll down for more on Benton Harbor's problems.
The two key words in the petition are "emergency" and "immediately." The petition wasn't a call to launch a prolonged investigation, it asked for help now.
For context, in October 2015 as Flint's situation was worsening, the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the EPA to use that same emergency authority to help the citizens of Flint. The EPA, two months later, declined to intervene. It said it would monitor Michigan's work to help Flint. Month's later, EPA did intervene when the failings of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) were too obvious to ignore.
What's the status of the emergency intervention for Benton Harbor, I asked the EPA.
A spokesperson responded that the agency is considering Benton Harbor's problems and is monitoring lead-related health issues. It has been in contact with citizens, the activist groups and the "State," though they weren't more specific as to who at "the State."
Given that the petition was for an emergency intervention, when would EPA decide to intervene or not? They'll get back to me on that one, they say.
I also contacted Michigan's Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), the successor agency to the DEQ. No response to my latest inquiry, nothing.
I previously wrote that the Benton Harbor situation was eerily similar to that of Flint six years ago. So far, I see nothing from EPA or EGLE to change my view.
And there's this story headline today from the British publication, The Guardian. "A Black town's water is more poisoned than Flint's. In a White town nearby, it's clean." I'll let the story speak for itself.
More as the situation warrants.
Lessons of Flint “not learned” activist says. Citizens and activists petition U.S. EPA to intervene in another Michigan drinking water crisis
Last week I received a press release with the following headline.
“Groups File Emergency Petition Asking EPA to Order Safe Water for Benton Harbor, MI Due to Shocking Lead Contamination”
Ok, I knew Benton Harbor was experiencing drinking water issues but wasn’t aware they had risen to the level of warranting an emergency federal intervention. Then it dawned on me, this is Michigan.
I covered the Flint water crisis beginning in its early days before the existence of lead in the water was known. Another press release immediately came to mind and after a quick search, it was from October 2015.
“Groups Petition EPA for Emergency Response to Flint, MI Drinking Water Contamination”
I wasn’t going to attend the Benton Harbor presser unless it was convenient, but I made time.
What unfolded was eerily similar to Flint.
A Benton Harbor community leader pleading for help.
“For at least three years, the people of Benton Harbor have been waiting for safe drinking water uncontaminated by dangerous lead. But we are not willing to wait any longer. It’s urgent that the EPA intervene to give this community access to water that won’t harm our health, especially our children’s health,” said Reverend Edward Pinkney.
Non-profit activists from the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council had engaged in support of Benton Harbor residents.
Nick Leonard from the Law Center said activists were told by the Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) that the Benton Harbor situation is under control. Research indicated otherwise.
Cyndi Roper from NRDC’s Michigan office said Michigan “did not learn the lessons from Flint” and it was shocking to be dealing with this issue.
Worth noting, EGLE is the re-branded and reorganized successor to the Department of Environmental Quality that failed Flint. In the reorganization, a position of Clean Water Public Advocate was created. It’s role is to “accept and investigate complaints and concerns related to drinking water within the state of Michigan,” according to its website.
Also worth noting is that this petition has about 20 groups and individuals who signed on, including Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who was instrumental in exposing the lead that Flint residents were exposed to,
What’s Michigan saying?
Curiously, the day before the Benton Harbor press release Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a plan to replace the city’s lead pipes within 5 years. The plan requires legislative approval.
Community leader Rev. Pinkney said thanks but Benton Harbor needs clean water now.
I contacted EGLE for comments on the request for emergency intervention by the EPA. Spokesperson Scott Dean responded with a list of actions taken and support provided for Benton Harbor. Dean did not comment on the request for EPA to intervene.
Also asked was what advice EGLE’s Clean Water Public Advocate provided to agency Dir. Liesl Clark and staff on Benton Harbor’s drinking water issues.
EGLE didn’t respond to the question except to provide a link to the advocate’s 2020 annual report.
Where to from here?
Now it’s up to President Joe Biden’s EPA to determine if an emergency intervention is necessary.
In 2015 the EPA under President Barack Obama initially declined NRDC’s intervention request but later declared an emergency and provided support to Flint. The regional EPA administrator with responsibility for Flint resigned based on her handling of the water crisis.
An emergency intervention in Benton Harbor would be a rebuke of Gov. Whitmer, a close Biden ally. Refusing to intervene would deflate Biden’s equity and environmental justice credibility, a key pillar in his Build Back Better plan.
After three years of reporting and commenting on the Flint crisis, I was relieved to move on. I thought I’d never see anything like what happened in Flint take place in Michigan again.
I was wrong.