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Environmental chief defends Michigan's water response in Benton Harbor

Beth LeBlanc, The Detroit News on

Published in News & Features

LANSING, Mich. — Michigan's environmental director dodged a lawmaker's question about the safety of Benton Harbor's drinking water four times Thursday before finally saying it was unsafe.

Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy Director Liesl Clark initially just responded the state was providing bottled water to the community.

"Let's just talk like normal people here, it's a normal question: Is the water in Benton Harbor safe to drink or not?" GOP Rep. Steve Johnson said during a Thursday House Oversight Committee hearing.

"No, it's not. People should be drinking bottled water," Clark said.

The exchange came as the department director described myriad factors that have ratcheted up attention on the Benton Harbor water crisis: Drinking water samples exceeded action levels for the sixth time in three years at the end of June; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns that filters distributed to homeowners might not be working; and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration earlier this month asked residents to use bottled water and expedited replacement of lead service lines in the city.

Critics of the state's response have argued the real reason the state stepped up its response was because of residents' Sept. 9 petition asking the EPA to intervene in the city's case.

 

Thursday's hearing was tinged with political undertones that have persisted through what is now two lead-related water crises in Michigan: The role of emergency management in Black majority, low-income communities; a dearth of money to fix aging infrastructure; and missed opportunities to act sooner and more aggressively.

The combination of the EPA's study into the effectiveness of the water filters; the involvement of the Department of Health and Human Services, which usually opines on drinking water safety; and sporadic lead test results from some homes made it difficult to answer the question regarding the safety of the city's water, Clark said. The situation is "urgent and inexcusable," she said, but she emphasized the only long-term solution to the problem is to remove the lead service lines.

"We must recognize that our shared goal of safe drinking water for all Benton Harbor residents will not be achieved until we get all the lead pipes out of the ground," Clark said.

Elevated lead levels were first detected in Benton Harbor in 2018 during routine testing. Much of the city's water distribution system is about 100 years old. State and city officials treated Benton Harbor's drinking water with a corrosion chemical blend that failed to control harmful levels of lead for more than two years and rejected federal requirements to fully study its effectiveness, The Detroit News reported last week.

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