Reluctance to declare water not safe to drink damages state’s credibility in the wake of Flint
The question asked of Michigan’s top environmental executive wasn’t complicated, it was straight forward.
“Is the water in Benton Harbor safe to drink,” asked Rep. Steven Johnson, a Republican who is chair of a legislative Oversight Committee.
But Liesl Clark elected to dodge the straight forward path to an answer and said, repeatedly, "the state of Michigan wants citizens to be drinking bottled water."
Clark directs the Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), the successor agency to the Department of Environmental Quality of Flint water crisis notoriety.
Johnson wasn’t buying Clark’s dodge and asked her to answer like a “normal” person and she relented, “No it’s not, people should be drinking bottled water,” Clark said.
The exchange caused the Detroit Free Press to say in its reporting, “Michigan leader waffles on whether Benton Harbor water is safe.” A government official “waffling” on a question they don’t want to answer isn’t news, it’s a regular occurrence. But Clark took it to the extreme on an issue important to everyone, public health.
And that’s how it has gone in Michigan since a group of Benton Harbor residents and activists, tired of Michigan’s intransigence on Benton Harbor’s water issues, formally requested the USEPA to use its emergency authority to intervene.
Since September 9 Michigan, with the EPA involved, has reacted by supplying bottled water for an undetermined period while the use of filters is studied.
But Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her Health and Human Services director Elizabeth Hertel still can’t bring themselves to answer the -- is the water safe to drink -- question. I’ve asked twice.
No response from Whitmer’s office, nothing.
Whitmer’s Benton Harbor messaging comes via press releases where she recycles phrases like all hands on deck and a whole-of-government approach “to move forward with urgency and ensure that every parent can give their kid a glass of water with confidence.”
Hertel spokesperson Lynn Sutfin did not answer the question, instead she responded with “out of an abundance of caution, it is recommended that city residents use bottled water for cooking, drinking and brushing teeth.”
Sutfin included a rebuke in her response reminding me that the “out of an abundance of caution….” statement was in a previous press release. As if I had forgotten, I hadn’t.
What Whitmer, Clark and Hertel don’t understand or choose to ignore is that reporters and legislators are asking if the water is safe to drink, because Benton Harbor residents need to hear it from the state’s leaders.
Activist and community leader Rev. Edward Pinkney wants Whitmer to tell the people the water isn’t safe because “that way people will listen,” MLive reported.
With Clark on the record with the legislature that Benton Harbor’s water is not safe, I went back to EGLE with a follow up question.
For how long has Clark known that the water is not safe to drink? Why didn't she disclose it earlier, I asked.
Here’s the unedited response from EGLE spokesperson Scott Dean.
“EGLE has been aware that water from some taps in Benton Harbor exceeded the federal lead action level since the 2018 exceedance was recorded, which is why within days of being initially advised of the 2018 exceedance, EGLE instructed Benton Harbor to issue a public advisory through multiple media to all persons served by its water supply. And that is also why DHHS promptly provided funding to the Berrien County Health Department to make water filters available to every residence in the city. EGLE has given similar instructions to Benton Harbor after each reported exceedance. Director Clark was aware of each exceedance and the instructions given to Benton Harbor.”
The response is what I call agency-speak, the use of technical jargon like “exceedance” when there’s too much lead in the water.
When people turn on the tap, they don’t want to ponder if their water has a level of lead that “exceeded” an acceptable level. They want to know if it’s safe to drink, in direct, plain-spoken language
Language like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Flint water crisis renown recently used when I asked if Benton Harbor’s water is safe to drink.
“No, the water is not safe to drink and especially not for children. There is lead in the water, and there’s been lead in the water for too long. We know what lead does, and it is absolutely not safe for anyone to be drinking at this time,” she said.
No waffling, quibbling or recycled talking points from Dr. Hanna-Attisha.
If only Michigan’s leaders responsible for public health would be so forthcoming.
Liesl Clark’s testimony to the House Oversight Committee is here.
Chicago-based environmental journalist