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Another Michigan water crisis highlights infrastructure problems

BENTON HARBOR, Mich .– In the three years that authorities have been made aware of the dangerous amounts of lead leaking from faucets in Benton Harbor, Mich., They have sent out notices, distributed filters, and tried to improve the treatment of the water. But the problems persisted, and some residents said they had never heard of the risks of toxic water coming from their taps.

Now, in scenes reminiscent of the water crisis in Flint, Mich., State officials have told residents of Benton Harbor not to drink, cook, or brush their teeth with tap water . Elected officials came to town on Thursday promising their help. And so many cars turned to free bottled water that traffic was hampered, a rarity in a place of 9,100 people.

“It’s horrible to look at, to see my city like this,” said Rosetta Valentine, 63, as she led traffic to a water distribution site where some people lined up near a hour before the start of the event.

Residents of Benton Harbor see parallels between their plight and the water crisis that unfolded less than three hours on the highway in Flint, also a predominantly black town, where a change in water source in 2014 led residents to drink contaminated water despite repeated assurances. that was for sure. In Benton Harbor, where thousands of homes are connected to the water system through lead pipes, efforts to reduce problematic lead readings using corrosion controls have so far failed, and officials have failed. recently worried that lead filters provided to residents since 2019 may not work.

The problems at Benton Harbor and Flint are extreme examples of a broader national failure in water infrastructure that experts say requires massive and immediate investments to be addressed. Across the country, in cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh and Clarksburg, W.Va., Americans are drinking dangerous amounts of brain-damaging lead as agencies fight to upgrade water treatment plants and launch efforts to replace the lead service lines that connect buildings to the water system. Health officials say there is no safe level of lead exposure.

“We basically live off the investments of our great-grandparents and grandparents in our water infrastructure and we are not addressing these lingering issues,” said Erik D. Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a human rights advocacy group. Faster action rights to fight contamination at Benton Harbor. He added that the lead problem was only part of “this time bomb that we have underground of lead pipes, of bursting water pipes.”

President Biden has made replacing lead pipes a priority, and the infrastructure bill currently lying in Congress would set aside billions of dollars to address this and other problems with gas supply systems. water of the country. The bill, which has some Republican backing, includes around $ 55 billion to improve water systems, although other Republicans have expressed concerns about the costs.

But amid the uncertainty over whether this bill and a broad set of domestic policies will pass, and how much money would ultimately flow to small communities like this, the prospect of Congressional help seems far away for many in Benton Harbor.

“It’s too far away and they’re going to do what they’re doing anyway – I can’t sit here and sweat this,” said Reverend Edward Pinkney, a pastor from Benton Harbor who delivered water. bottled to residents, and who said he held Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, responsible for fixing the problem.

Many American cities face serious water problems. In Newark, NJ, where lead problems may have worsened, a multi-year effort to replace lead pipes is nearing completion. But lead is just one of the growing problems in local water supply systems. In Wichita, Kansas, hundreds of thousands of people were put on a boil water advisory this month after a decades-old pipeline burst. In Jackson, Mississippi, a winter storm this year froze pipes and placed much of the city on a boil water advisory for weeks. And in parts of the American West, long droughts have exacerbated water shortages, forcing painful decisions about how much farmers and other customers can use.

The American Society of Civil Engineers this year awarded the country’s water infrastructure a C-minus rating, calling the national system “aging and underfunded” despite recent efforts to invest in improvements. Emily Feenstra, the group’s general manager for government relations and infrastructure initiatives, said legislation in Congress provides an opportunity to make up for lost time fixing these crumbling systems, especially in small towns that can be lacking. resources or expertise to make changes to their own.

“This is an urgent problem: this is something that we have a huge opportunity to address right now with this infrastructure bill,” Ms. Feenstra said. “As we put the box on the road by just doing the bare minimum, the costs increase exponentially. “

In Benton Harbor, state officials said Thursday they would continue to distribute free bottled water, and Ms Whitmer, who is re-elected next year, has set an 18-month goal to replace lead pipes connecting houses to the water system. This process will cost almost $ 30 million and was once expected to take years. But the water problems in Benton Harbor are not new, and questions have arisen as to why city, state and federal authorities failed to take more aggressive action sooner.

“If I had a magic wand I would solve all the problems plaguing the town of Benton Harbor as we speak,” said Mayor Marcus Muhammad. “However, the government doesn’t work that way. The city of Benton Harbor is a creature of the state, and the state is a creature of the federal government.

When asked if the action taken Thursday should have happened when officials learned of the city’s high lead levels three years ago, Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, replied that she could not answer.

“To be honest, these should have been replaced years ago, and we shouldn’t even be in the position we are in, but we are,” said Ms Hertel, who said the funds proposed federal infrastructure would help combat the downturn. systems across Michigan.

Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II said on Thursday during a visit to Benton Harbor that the state has been working with the city since 2018 on water issues but that “these efforts have yet to be fully realized. the challenge “. He said the decisions to provide bottled water and speed up the replacement of lead pipes were “an appropriate escalation of that response.”

Benton Harbor, which sits across from Lake Michigan from Chicago, has a proud history of manufacturing, a championship golf course, and a downtown area showing signs of revival. But the city has endured decades of divestment and hardship.

Some residents said they saw what happened several years ago in Flint and started to worry about the quality of the water. Some people in Benton Harbor stopped drinking tap water a long time ago. Some have complained about the taste. Others have worried in recent years as test after test has returned showing Benton Harbor well above the federal action level for lead of 15 parts per billion in 10 percent of the samples.

But other residents, like Michael Johnson, who watched from his porch as cars lined up for a gift of water, are only now discovering the risks posed by their tap water. The problems have persisted for years, but the response has accelerated dramatically in recent weeks. Last month, local and national environmental groups petitioned the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, which last year awarded the city a grant to begin replacing lead pipes, in order to intervene more aggressively in Benton Harbor. Ms. Whitmer has pledged millions of state dollars to fix the lead lines. Then came the warnings not to drink tap water.

“I was a little scared,” said Mr Johnson, 50. “I have also been drinking a lot of juice since the day before yesterday, trying to stay away from the tap.”

About 45 percent of the people of Benton Harbor live in poverty and the school system is faltering. Like Flint, Benton Harbor has spent time under state-appointed emergency management. And just two years ago, Ms Whitmer attempted to shut down Benton Harbor High School before backing down amid the protests.

For many in the city, water is just another indignity. And some can’t help but wonder if the situation would be any different if the people of Benton Harbor were richer or whiter. Across the bridge in Saint-Joseph, a predominantly white town, there is no such water emergency.

“Some people are still alive where blacks had their water fountain and whites theirs,” said Duane L. Seats II, deputy mayor of Benton Harbor and pastor of a church that organizes water gifts. in a bottle. “So what’s the difference in this situation now?” “

It has all been scary, said Erica Moss, 26, a mother of four, who recently started buying bottled water after hearing about the high levels of lead on Facebook. Lead is known to damage the brain and nervous system, impair growth, and contribute to behavioral problems, with particularly serious effects in children.

“It’s still an issue here going on – it’s still something happening in Benton Harbor,” said Ms. Moss, who expressed doubt that a fix would materialize anytime soon. “I was shocked, but not shocked at the same time.”

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