The state’s recent announcement that it would create a panel to address high levels of lead in drinking water deflects from its failure to reduce the amount of the heavy metal in a community’s water supply.
Six tests in the last three years show Benton Harbor has higher than allowable amounts of lead in its water. In a recent test, some water samples from that city contained 24 parts per billion of lead—almost double the federal action level, which is 15 parts per billion.
Three years is far too long for any city to have high levels of lead in its water supply, but the state agency’s urgency seemed to have dwindled until environmental groups filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency criticizing Lansing’s response and asking for relief.
Only after the petition did the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy start to hand out water bottles to residents of Benton Harbor, the majority of whom are Black or from minority communities.
The plea to the feds wasn’t the first time the agency was made aware of the issue and called to act, according to Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center one of the organizations listed on the petition.
“A number of petitioners met with folks at EGLE in late 2019 to talk about things we thought were problematic with their response,” Leonard said. “And their answer at the time was, things are under control, lead levels are going down, we’ve got this. And that simply wasn’t the case.”
The petition to the EPA appears to have prompted the agency’s announcement that it would invite experts to help it work on the issue of lead in the water and the aging infrastructure underneath cities such as Benton Harbor and Flint.
Beside forming the panel, EGLE also announced the appointment of Kris Donaldson as a clean water public advocate.
These are good moves, but they come way late. Michiganians should be able to expect more urgency from state officials who are charged with keeping Michigan communities’ water free from contamination. It failed to do that for years.
Prior to the petition, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she would seek $20 million for fixing Benton Harbor’s pipes, but the budget approved by the Legislature and signed by Whitmer only earmarked $10 million for the job.
Lansing should put more federal relief funds toward communities such as Benton Harbor where water lines need to be replaced. It’s the kind of one-time investment that will pay healthy dividends for years.