Agency forms advisory panel with a focus on corrosion control; engineer says it’s a “distraction” when Benton Harbor needs safe drinking water
The Michigan agency responsible for drinking water quality announced last week that it is increasing its focus on lead contamination by assembling a panel of external experts to provide technical advice.
The release did not mention the current drinking water crisis in Benton Harbor but it closely follows a request by citizens and activist groups for the U.S. EPA to use its emergency authority to intervene as it did in Flint.
“The seven-member panel of technical experts will bolster the Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy’s (EGLE) ongoing effort to advise drinking water systems with aging lead service lines on effective corrosion control strategies,” the agency said in a press release.
Corrosion control involves taking action to minimize dissolution of lead and copper into drinking water without compromising other health-related water quality goals.
“Corrosion control is particularly important in many communities where older, outdated water treatment infrastructure creates challenges in keeping lead out of drinking water,” EGLE Director Liesl Clark said.
Clark said people of color and low-income neighborhoods are disproportionately impacted by older water treatment infrastructure.
But a prominent drinking water quality engineer questions EGLE’s emphasis on corrosion control, especially in light of the Benton Harbor crisis where residents have been drinking unsafe water for three years.
“What we’ve learned from Flint and other water crises is that corrosion control takes time to get right and make a measurable change in water quality. It takes time to implement and it’s not foolproof,” said Elin Betanzo, founder of Safe Water Engineering.
“Even when you have corrosion control treatment, it can reduce the amount of lead in water but it doesn’t prevent it,” said Betanzo, who worked with Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha on the Flint drinking water crisis.
Use of advisory groups is common for elected officials and agencies for specific issues.
Former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder had advisory panels on public health, Line 5 and fracking. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has impaneled groups on Black leadership, the Edenville Dam failure and climate change.
Betanzo called a corrosion control focus in Benton Harbor now a “distraction” and said “the urgent action right now is to get safe water to the residents of Benton Harbor and to get the lead service lines out of the ground.”
“Residents of Benton Harbor need to stop drinking water from the tap because we don’t have information to show that it’s safe,” she said.
In response to my follow up inquiry on Benton Harbor, spokesperson Timothy Carroll said "the agency shares the serious concerns expressed by the community about lead in Benton Harbor’s drinking water. EPA staff from headquarters and Region 5 (Chicago) have mobilized to ensure there is prompt action to address the community’s public health needs."
EPA is providing support to and oversight of Michigan’s actions, including the delivery of bottled water according to Carroll who said, "EPA scientific experts and technical staff are fully engaged."
"The agency will continue to be involved to support and monitor the effectiveness of the immediate interventions and development of long-term solutions in Benton Harbor," Carroll said.
He did not address the question of declaring an emergency intervention which was requested by the petitioners. The EPA has direct oversight responsibility for the states on drinking water quality and the authority to intervene as it eventually did in Flint. But it took the agency three months to intervene and that was only after the regional administrator in Chicago with responsibility for Flint resigned.
The regional office in Chicago has been operating with an interim administrator since President Biden took office in January.
In 2018 the EPA’s Inspector General released a report on the agency’s role in Flint that said, “the EPA should strengthen its oversight of state drinking water programs to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the agency's response to drinking water contamination emergencies.”
EGLE Director Liesl Clark has been in touch with EPA staff but not Administrator Michael Regan, according to an EGLE spokesperson.
Gov. Whitmer’s office has not responded to inquiries on Benton Harbor including if she has talked to the EPA’s Regan or if she would visit Benton Harbor if requested by residents.
Whitmer is known to have close ties to the Biden administration and serves on an advisory council to the president.
Former Gov. Snyder visited Flint and met with residents at the height of the water crisis in 2016. In January, Snyder was charged with felony misdemeanors for his role in Flint and has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Drinking water engineer Betanzo sees an opportunity for the Biden administration on Benton harbor.
“President Biden and Administrator Regan have touted their environmental justice agenda. This is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that they will do what they’ve said they would do,” Betanzo said.
Editor's note: The first post of this story misspelled Elin Betanzo's name. Apologies for the error.