.Whitmer directive calls for free bottled water, lead-related testing and health services. Activist says action is "overdue."
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer picked up the pace this week in dealing with the Benton Harbor drinking water issues when she announced increased action by the state to assist residents during the crisis.
In an executive directive, Whitmer said the plan to replace the city’s lead pipelines now has a goal of completion within 18 months. Free bottled water for residents will be available for an indefinite period and residents will be offered free or low-cost lead-related services including drinking water testing and health services.
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist visited Benton Harbor to deliver the message of Whitmer’s directive and said in a statement it “brings together state, federal, local and municipal governments, and organizations on the ground, in the community, to solve short-term problems and replace Benton Harbor's lead service lines as quickly as possible.”
The directive comes five weeks after residents and activists, frustrated by the state's lack of action, appealed to the U.S. EPA to use its emergency authority and intervene in Benton Harbor as it did in Flint in 2016.
As previously reported here, EPA has mobilized staff in Washington and in the Chicago Great Lakes office to intervene and provide support to the Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy. It is also monitoring the Michigan agency’s progress in dealing with the crisis. EPA has not yet formally declared an emergency.
Reaction to Whitmer’s directive from the groups who petitioned the EPA to intervene was cautiously supportive.
“It's important to note that we filed the petition because we didn't think any level of government - be it the local, state, or federal government - was adequately responding to the issue of lead in Benton Harbor's water,” said Nick Leonard, Executive Director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.
Leonard said Whitmer’s action was overdue and he “expects the federal government to do the same.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council “is committed to working with Benton Harbor residents and state officials to move this plan forward,” Senior Policy Advocate Cyndi Roper said.
“It is still important that the governor and all state agencies make it clear that the water is unsafe to drink. There should be no ambiguity about the safety of the water,” Roper said.
The governor’s office, the Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy and the Department of Health and Human Services have not responded to requests to declare if Benton Harbor’s water is safe to drink.
Two drinking water experts in Michigan have advised residents to not drink Benton Harbor’s water.
“Residents of Benton Harbor need to stop drinking water from the tap because we don’t have information to show that it’s safe,” Elin Betanzo, an engineer and Founder of Safe Water Engineering previously said.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha from the Hurley Medical Center told Great Lakes Now this week that “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.”
Betanzo and Hanna-Attisha were instrumental in exposing the lead in Flint’s water.
Environmental attorney Leonard said the emergency petition for EPA intervention is still outstanding and he is unsure if EPA signed off on Whitmer’s executive directive.
This story will be updated if a response is received from the EPA
Chicago-based environmental journalist