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.
Chicago-based environmental journalist