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Lead in Benton Harbor water must be dealt with immediately, say outraged residents

Residents of a predominantly black Michigan town, whose drinking water has contained high levels of lead for at least three years now, are demanding a more aggressive response from the state.

As state officials say they are working to correct the problem arising from obsolete and corroded service lines, residents of Benton Harbor say they are sounding the alarm on the contamination since 2018 and the response delayed not only increased frustration, but also accumulated more damage.

The city of 10,000 is over 84% black and nearly half of the residents live in poverty, a similar feature to Flint, who has had to deal with his own water emergency from 2014.

“How to justify three years of documented contamination and do nothing? said Edward Pinkney, head of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, a local environmental justice group that launched the campaign for clean water. “We like the water bottles, but the water bottles are just a band-aid on a gunshot wound.”

Reverend Edward Pinkney speaks to NBC News about the lead water crisis in Benton Harbor, Michigan.NBC News

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services poured thousands of cases of bottled water into Benton Harbor, which is 80 miles south of Grand Rapids, after posting a notice last week urging residents to do not use tap water for “cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, and mixing powdered infant formula” by “an abundance of caution” due to significantly elevated lead levels.

The city’s water was tested for 22 parts per billion contamination in 2018 and has consistently had high lead levels since. Tests showed 24 ppb between January and June of this year. The action level, a measure of the effectiveness of corrosion control set by the Environmental Protection Agency, is 15 ppb, but the agency says there is no safe lead level.

After cries for help fell on what Pinkney called “deaf ears,” her group and 19 other environmental justice organizations, many of whom worked on the Flint crisis, filed a petition for action. emergency last month asking the EPA for federal intervention. The agency agreed to intervene, which ultimately prompted the state to act, he said. He said a lawsuit against the city and the state was still pending.

“It’s unfortunate that you look at life so cheap in a predominantly African-American community,” he added.

A resident collects bottled water from a distribution site in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

Bobbie Clay, 52, a longtime resident of Benton Harbor who also has children and young grandchildren in the town, said she was very concerned about the long-term health consequences, especially for young people.

“Water affects our children,” she said. “There is a noticeable change between the way my children were compared to my grandchildren. Young people are extremely hyperactive and a lot of parents have gone to doctors to find out what is going on.

According to the EPA, even low levels of lead in children can lead to behavioral and learning problems, low IQ and hyperactivity, slow growth and hearing problems. In adults, it can cause cardiovascular effects, increased blood pressure and the incidence of hypertension, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems in both men and women.

Clay said she has been using bottled water for drinking for four years and describes tap water as having a “white film” and a “strange smell” at times.

The state offers free blood tests for lead levels with additional testing via upcoming mobile units, said Lynn Sutfin, public relations manager at the state Department of Health and Human Services.

A resident fills a cup of tap water in Benton Harbor, Michigan.NBC News

Stacey Branscumb, 47, has lived in Benton Harbor since 2009 and believes several of her pets, including two fish tanks and her dog, have died from exposure to lead. He said his tap water tested lead levels at 469 ppb, 31 times the EPA’s action level.

“I don’t believe the state or the city is doing enough to solve this problem,” he said. “They have to drop everything else and deal with it because what’s in the water will hurt us a lot more than anything.”

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the state legislature have released $ 10 million to replace the city’s old and corroded lead water pipes over the next five years.

According to the EPA file, “Benton Harbor reported having 5,877 service lines in total; 51% of its service lines are known to contain lead, are known to be galvanized lines previously connected to lead, or are of an unknown material but likely to contain lead.

“Protecting the health and safety of the residents of Benton Harbor is a top priority,” Elizabeth Hertel, director of the State Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement last week.

But Pinkney said five years was too long to deal with an urgent health crisis, and said the state needs to better emphasize the urgency of the situation to residents.

“Just tell people that the water is not safe to drink,” he said.

“Stop sending conflicting messages about an ‘abundance of caution’ and tell people the truth it’s just not safe,” he said.