Actions to Address High Lead Levels in Drinking Water Due to Benton Harbor Residents’ Leadership
Last week 9,000 cases of water were delivered and distributed to Benton Harbor, Michigan residents by volunteers with the Benton Harbor Community Water Council. The water was provided by the state after Governor Whitmer signed an executive directive on October 14 to “coordinate all available state resources to deliver safe drinking water to residents in Benton Harbor,” where lead levels have been high for over three years. The Benton Harbor Community Water Council (BHCWC) and Freshwater Future believe this all-hands-on-deck approach provides the urgency and resources appropriate to the drinking water emergency occurring in Benton Harbor.
This action comes after years of struggle by Benton Harbor residents to be heard outside of their community in order to secure the resources needed to safeguard public health in the city from lead. Because no level of lead is safe, residents have needed alternative water, filters and educational information. Jill Ryan, Executive Director of Freshwater Future commented “we have been honored to work with residents and the BHCWC to ensure resources continued to be available in Benton Harbor to not only inform residents of the lead issue and how to protect their families, but also to work toward a resolution that returns the water system to providing safe drinking water, which is what every resident wants and should expect.” Freshwater Future supports the BHCWC in providing training, conducting community science, distributing educational information, conducting water testing, securing water filter stations in schools, and hosting community engagement.
Recently a collaboration of more than 20 community and environmental groups, led by the BHCWC, petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in and help Benton Harbor. This action and the attention it garnered, finally pushed the struggle into national and state focus. We thank all of those groups for their leadership in this effort. Reverend Edward Pinkney, President and CEO of the BHCWC stated, “after years of struggle to raise awareness, I am happy we were able to work together to achieve this declaration. The BHCWC and our allies will be here to ensure that these statements are followed with action to safeguard the health of the people of Benton Harbor.”
After three years of being out of compliance with the water standards set by the state of Michigan, massive attention from the public and the government is creating new found support for the BHCWC. The group has championed the work the past three years to ensure their neighbors’ safety and their access to clean and safe water. Governor Whitmer’s announcement invokes a sense of urgency to pool resources from the state to provide clean and accessible water.
The BHCWC has been working tirelessly to support the community and provide education to its residents. While the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy recently stated there is “in general an improvement overall,” we have seen no evidence of such improvement. We look forward to working with the state to understand where improvements to the lead situation exist and where there are opportunities to improve further.
Reverend Pinkney requested the state, on behalf of the BHCWC, tell residents directly that the water is unsafe to drink currently, and therefore they should utilize bottled water for drinking, cooking, and making baby formula. Finally, the state under pressure made the announcement that residents should use bottled water on October 21.
Residents working through the BHCWC have been steering the way information, water and filters are distributed in the community by listening to the needs of the community. As the resources provided by the government are certainly positive, the resources they provide will be most effective if they listen to and work with community groups like the BHCWC. Community groups are in the best position to continue to lead the good work from the residents’ perspective. Working together to alleviate water insecurity can be an example of how the government and community collaborate for the most effective outcome for the residents living with unsafe water.