Lessons of Flint “not learned” activist says. Citizens and activists petition U.S. EPA to intervene in another Michigan drinking water crisis
Last week I received a press release with the following headline.
“Groups File Emergency Petition Asking EPA to Order Safe Water for Benton Harbor, MI Due to Shocking Lead Contamination”
Ok, I knew Benton Harbor was experiencing drinking water issues but wasn’t aware they had risen to the level of warranting an emergency federal intervention. Then it dawned on me, this is Michigan.
I covered the Flint water crisis beginning in its early days before the existence of lead in the water was known. Another press release immediately came to mind and after a quick search, it was from October 2015.
“Groups Petition EPA for Emergency Response to Flint, MI Drinking Water Contamination”
I wasn’t going to attend the Benton Harbor presser unless it was convenient, but I made time.
What unfolded was eerily similar to Flint.
A Benton Harbor community leader pleading for help.
“For at least three years, the people of Benton Harbor have been waiting for safe drinking water uncontaminated by dangerous lead. But we are not willing to wait any longer. It’s urgent that the EPA intervene to give this community access to water that won’t harm our health, especially our children’s health,” said Reverend Edward Pinkney.
Non-profit activists from the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council had engaged in support of Benton Harbor residents.
Nick Leonard from the Law Center said activists were told by the Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) that the Benton Harbor situation is under control. Research indicated otherwise.
Cyndi Roper from NRDC’s Michigan office said Michigan “did not learn the lessons from Flint” and it was shocking to be dealing with this issue.
Worth noting, EGLE is the re-branded and reorganized successor to the Department of Environmental Quality that failed Flint. In the reorganization, a position of Clean Water Public Advocate was created. It’s role is to “accept and investigate complaints and concerns related to drinking water within the state of Michigan,” according to its website.
Also worth noting is that this petition has about 20 groups and individuals who signed on, including Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who was instrumental in exposing the lead that Flint residents were exposed to,
What’s Michigan saying?
Curiously, the day before the Benton Harbor press release Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a plan to replace the city’s lead pipes within 5 years. The plan requires legislative approval.
Community leader Rev. Pinkney said thanks but Benton Harbor needs clean water now.
I contacted EGLE for comments on the request for emergency intervention by the EPA. Spokesperson Scott Dean responded with a list of actions taken and support provided for Benton Harbor. Dean did not comment on the request for EPA to intervene.
Also asked was what advice EGLE’s Clean Water Public Advocate provided to agency Dir. Liesl Clark and staff on Benton Harbor’s drinking water issues.
EGLE didn’t respond to the question except to provide a link to the advocate’s 2020 annual report.
Where to from here?
Now it’s up to President Joe Biden’s EPA to determine if an emergency intervention is necessary.
In 2015 the EPA under President Barack Obama initially declined NRDC’s intervention request but later declared an emergency and provided support to Flint. The regional EPA administrator with responsibility for Flint resigned based on her handling of the water crisis.
An emergency intervention in Benton Harbor would be a rebuke of Gov. Whitmer, a close Biden ally. Refusing to intervene would deflate Biden’s equity and environmental justice credibility, a key pillar in his Build Back Better plan.
After three years of reporting and commenting on the Flint crisis, I was relieved to move on. I thought I’d never see anything like what happened in Flint take place in Michigan again.
I was wrong.
Chicago-based environmental journalist