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Michigan Gov. Whitmer visits Benton Harbor amid water crisis in predominately Black community

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(BENTON HARBOR, Mich.) — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer visited Benton Harbor as a crisis of toxic lead poisoning the city’s drinking water has stoked mounting frustration and fury.

The governor issued a new call for the state legislature to provide an additional $11.4 million investment to help expedite the replacement of lead pipes and service lines in the predominately Black community within the next 18 months.

The estimated cost to replace all of the lead service lines in Benton Harbor is $30 million, and the state has so far earmarked some $18.6 million, according to a statement from the governor’s office. Whitmer called on the legislature to secure the additional $11.4 million by tapping into federal money made available to Michigan through the pandemic-era American Rescue Plan.

Her visit to the western Michigan community to meet with residents and local leaders on Tuesday came days after she signed an executive directive that aimed to coordinate all available state resources to deliver safe drinking water to residents.

“Every Michigander deserves safe drinking water,” Whitmer said in a statement, saying she visited Benton Harbor “to hear from community leaders doing the work on the ground and residents living through water challenges every day.”

“I cannot imagine the stress that moms and dads in Benton Harbor are under as they emerge from a pandemic, work hard to put food on the table, pay the bills, and face a threat to the health of their children,” she added. “That’s why we will not rest until every parent feels confident to give their kid a glass of water knowing that it is safe.”

For some Benton Harbor residents, the government attention and action comes too late. Elevated levels of lead have been detected in the city’s water system since at least 2018, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council petition filed last month to the Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of local advocacy groups and residents.

Residents continue to live with “significant and dangerous levels of lead contamination three years after the contamination was first discovered with no immediate solution in sight,” the petition states, calling it an “environmental justice” issue.

Some 85% of Benton Harbor’s approximately 9,700 resident are Black and 5% are Hispanic, according to the most-recent Census data. More than 45% of the population lives in poverty, the Census data states, and the median household income is $21,916.

Moreover, nearly 28% of the population is children under 18 years old. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns on its website that lead generally affects children more than it does adults, and children tend to show signs of severe lead toxicity at lower levels than adults.

Lead poisoning can bring a slew of detrimental health impacts, the CDC warns, including: abdominal pain, constipation, headaches, irritability, loss of appetite, pain or tingling in the hands and/or feet and weakness.

The petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council notes that Benton Harbor’s residents “are not only subjected to a disproportionately high level of lead exposure from a variety of sources beyond their drinking water, but also often lack access to high quality health care and are exposed to a wide array of other threats that can exacerbate the negative health effects associated with lead exposure.”

Earlier this month, Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services announced it was increasing the availability of free bottled water for Benton Harbor residents. The agency said in a statement that residents are being encouraged to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula.

The distribution of water bottles has faced hurdles, and the overall handling of the crisis has created mounting frustration among residents.

“Three years of this is ridiculous,” Rev. Edward Pinkney, a local faith leader told the local news outlet MLive, after a water handout organized by the state’s department of health ran out of water bottles 30 minutes after it was supposed to start.

Pinkney said he and his grassroots organization have been passing out 2,000 cases of water per month on their own dime since 2019.

Willie Mae Jones, a resident who said she and her four children have been drinking city water their entire lives, told the outlet they didn’t even know about the issue.

“We didn’t know we had lead in our water until probably a month ago,” Jones told MLive earlier this month. “We still have to pay for that water, and we can’t even use it. Now that’s ridiculous.”

The crisis in Benton Harbor also puts a harsh spotlight on real-world impacts of the nation’s dilapidated infrastructure, at a time when lawmakers on Capitol Hill are mulling over President Joe Biden’s massive infrastructure spending proposal.

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