Notes on another Michigan drinking water crisis
It’s been an intense eight weeks since drinking water activists, tired of Michigan’s intransigence on Benton Harbor’s lead problems, appealed directly to the U.S. EPA to intervene as the agency did in the Flint water crisis.
The EPA intervened, well… sort of and Benton Harbor residents are getting bottled water while Michigan works on the bigger issue of replacing lead service lines, which it has pledged to do.
Here, a few takeaways on what’s important to know from Michigan’s second drinking water quality debacle in a predominantly Black community in six years.
Don’t underestimate the power of a dedicated and smart group of activists.
That’s the coalition of organizations and individuals who challenged Michigan’s overseer of drinking water, the Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).
The group was led publicly by Benton Harbor community leader Rev. Edward Pinkney, Cyndi Roper, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Michigan advocate and Nick Leonard who directs the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.
The mix of community organization, environmental justice advocacy and legal expertise proved to be a powerful antidote to EGLE’s delay and reticence on Benton Harbor.
Benton Harbor residents would still be drinking lead contaminated water without the action taken by this coalition.
EGLE is the result of the reorganization of the Department of Environmental Quality that under former Gov. Rick Snyder, failed the people of Flint.
Part of the reorganization under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointee Liesl Clark was the creation of a Clean Water Public Advocate designed to help prevent another Flint-type crisis.
As the Benton Harbor water problems hit the spotlight in September, I attempted to ascertain what role the clean water advocate played in preventing or reacting to the crisis. I asked EGLE what, if any, advice the advocate provided to superiors on Benton Harbor. The executive order creating the advocacy position provides authority to alert the EGLE director and governor about water issues.
“Report matters relating to drinking water quality to the governor and the director of the Department, as the Clean Water Public Advocate deems necessary,” the order says.
The request was a no sale. I was referred to links in an annual report and a massive file of documents when a simple two or three sentence explanation could have sufficed.
For their part, Clark and her counterpart Elizabeth Hertel at Health and Human Services, could not bring themselves to say Benton Harbor’s water is unsafe to drink. Even when experts like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and water engineer Elin Betanzo said no, it’s not safe.
Something is fundamentally amiss again in Michigan when the state’s top water quality and public health executives did not learn the lessons of Flint.
Squishy U.S. EPA
When groups like the Benton Harbor advocates request an emergency intervention by the EPA, it’s not done on a whim. It’s a formal process rooted in the law and has to be properly presented to receive consideration.
The petition on Benton Harbor is 35 pages full of legalese, data and citations designed to bolster the petitioners’ case. It’s not for the EPA to take lightly.
EPA did “intervene” and in numerous responses to my questions said that it was making sure the bottled water was distributed and that it was monitoring Michigan’s actions. But there was no formal declaration of an emergency. I asked the EPA if they would be responding to the petitioners’ emergency request.
An agency spokesperson said it wasn’t necessary as Michigan was doing what the petitioners requested.
EPA did not respond to my question about Michigan’s responsibility to provide proper oversight of Benton Harbor’s drinking water operations that contributed to the crisis.
Quick take... EPA was trying to help Benton Harbor residents in MIchigan’s absence. But it was not interested in demanding accountability from EGLE and the state of Michigan, another indicator that lessons from Flint were not learned.
Props to the media
Yes, the media did its job in reporting on Benton Harbor.
With all that’s happening - Covid resurgences, Biden's imperiled agenda, an election, Afghanistan and more - it would have been easy for editors to let the Benton Harbor story slide.
But in addition to state and local coverage; PBS, the major TV networks, NPR, the New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian and more provided significant reporting.
The PBS story headline captured the sentiments of Benton Harbor residents and was especially revealing.
“Benton Harbor’s Black community fuming over environmental racism, water crisis,” the PBS headline read.
Not the type of attention Michigan’s aspirational, high profile governor would want, I suspect.
It’s not over
With bottled water available in Benton Harbor and a pledge to replace lead pipes within 18 months, it would be easy for the advocates to declare victory and move on.
But that’s not the case according to environmental attorney Nick Leonard.
Leonard said he wants to see the “details and binding commitments that will ensure Benton Harbor residents have safe water both now and for the foreseeable future.”
He also cited the need to monitor Gov. Whitmer’s commitment to “safe” drinking water in Benton Harbor because what constitutes “safe” isn’t always clear, Leonard said.
Leonard said to prevent another Benton Harbor, the state needs to identify water systems that could have lead problems and have emergency protocols in place to facilitate a quick response.
Whether Michigan can deliver is unknown. It’s not a certainty given recent events in Benton Harbor.
Chicago-based environmental journalist