Solving the Lead Pipe Problem in Benton Harbor and Across America


PLIVING PEOPLE in Benton Harbor, Michigan, do not drink tap water. Many go to nearby grocery stores to buy bottles. But unlike her neighbors, Lisa Williams doesn’t have a car, so she uses what comes out of her tap, even though the community’s water has been tested above the federal action limit for lead since. 2018. “I have to do it,” laments Ms. Williams; the bottled water that volunteers drop off doesn’t go far.

After Benton Harbor, a city of nearly 10,000 residents, more than 80 percent of whom are black, made headlines for its water crisis this year, Michigan vowed to replace all main service lines to the city within 18 months. That did not stop its residents from filing a class action lawsuit in November, alleging the government’s willful indifference. On the same day, a judge approved a $ 626 million settlement for those affected by a statewide water crisis in Flint, which sparked a similar media frenzy after residents complained about contaminated water in 2014. National attention seems to be paying off. Like the residents of Flint, Ms Williams will soon be able to trust the tap.

Many of the roughly 22 million people across America served by major service lines can hope to do the same. Congress has allocated $ 25 billion to repair water, between a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a Build Back Better Act that has yet to be passed. Even so, it’s about $ 20 billion less than what experts estimate is needed to replace all of the country’s major service lines.

Benton Harbor illustrates the number of low income communities that have been successful in securing funding in the past: grassroots organization. The city has emerged as America’s new “main hotspot”, citing comparisons to Flint and other cities that have received big investments after public protests and national media coverage. In September, the Benton Harbor Community Water Council petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a free source of drinking water. “We knew that by having this press conference when we tabled this petition, people would be excited,” said Edward Pinkney, Chairman of the Board.

Things have evolved rapidly. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has secured more than half of the $ 30 million needed to replace all of Benton’s lead pipes. And she called on the state legislature to allocate $ 11.4 million from the US bailout, the stimulus package adopted in March.

But other cash-strapped cities must compete for limited funding. Even low levels of lead in children can lead to behavioral problems, IQ and anemia. In pregnant women, it can induce premature birth and reduced fetal growth, and in adults more generally, it can decrease kidney function and cause reproductive problems. The EPA allocates approximately $ 1 billion annually to support water infrastructure projects, including replacement of lead pipelines, through grants and loans. However, poorer places can struggle to repay even low-interest loans. A lack of reliable testing means that many communities are probably unaware of the lead level in their water.

Hence the importance of the money promised by the Biden administration. The bipartisan infrastructure bill sets aside $ 15 billion for the replacement of lead pipes. The $ 1.7 billion Build Back Better bill, still stuck in the Senate, could provide nearly $ 10 billion more, for pipe replacement and mitigation tactics like filters for schools. While not as big as originally promised, the money will go a long way in solving the problem.

Because Benton Harbor doesn’t need to depend on that money, it is luckier than many communities that hope for federal funds. The city should have safe drinking water soon. In the meantime, its inhabitants will remain suspicious.

Every day Mr. Pinkney drives a U– Transport a truck through town to distribute bottled water with some of its two dozen volunteers. Long before the state stepped up its efforts, it was wary of water supplies. “It wasn’t the right color,” he grimaces. He hasn’t drunk from his tap for almost a decade.

Mr Pinkney slams city and state governments for failing to do more to address the city’s main problems, citing years of mismanagement and environmental racism. The pipes should have been replaced three years ago, he said, as soon as tests showed the city did not meet federal standards. That’s why they had to petition, he says: “It got people moving who would never have moved before. ”

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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Message in a bottle”


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