Three Years Into Water Crisis, Benton Harbor, Mich. Residents Told to Stop Drinking Tap Water

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Oct. 13 2021, Published 1:17 p.m. ET

water crisis
Source: Getty Images

Many residents of Flint, Mich. are still suffering from the effects of the Flint water crisis — but did you know there is another water crisis happening in a Michigan town just a few hours away? The Benton Harbor water crisis just keeps getting worse, and this week, city officials warned residents of the city not to use tap water, due to alarming levels of lead contamination.

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Keep reading for the background on the water issues in Benton Harbor, the latest updates, and, considering the fact that Benton Harbor is a primarily Black city with many low-income residents, why this is a matter of injustice.

Benton Harbor, Mich.
Source: J. Brouwer/Unsplash

Benton Harbor, Mich.

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The Benton Harbor water crisis has been going on since 2018.

Benton Harbor residents have been noticing irregularities in their tap water for years. And in 2018, the city informed residents that Benton Harbor’s tap water contained concerningly high levels of lead, which is associated with various health issues.

As per The Guardian, those 2018 tests revealed that Benton Harbor’s water contained 22 parts per billion of lead, which is more than both the federal lead action level (15 parts per billion) as well as the average amount measured during the Flint water crisis (20 parts per billion).

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At the time, the city put this responsibility on its residents, suggesting that they flush water pipes by running water, use filters, clean faucet aerators, and replace old plumbing. But the residents were not the ones at fault, and they should not have to clean up the city’s mess.

What caused the Benton Harbor water crisis?

Benton Harbor’s water comes from Lake Michigan, and according to the city, the lake does not contain any lead. On its way from the lake to Benton Harbor taps, water comes into contact with lead service lines, pipes, and other infrastructure that contains lead. As the water sits still, more lead leaches into the water, as explained on Benton Harbor’s website.

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In 2019, Benton Harbor began providing filters to residents, and later started replacing lead service lines, and then ramped up lead and copper monitoring. But over the past three years, the city hasn’t done nearly enough to end the crisis. And now, things have become even worse.

Michigan just advised Benton Harbor residents to stop consuming tap water.

In September 2021, the NRDC submitted a petition to the EPA, asking the government agency to take emergency action to solve Benton Harbor’s water crisis. A few weeks later, in October 2021, the state of Michigan advised Benton Harbor residents “out of an abundance of caution” to stop using tap water for consumption, washing produce, brushing teeth, etc., and to use bottled water instead.

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The city and state partnered to provide cases of bottled water to people throughout the city, which residents were invited to pick up for free. Officials said it was still OK to use tap water for bathing, cleaning, washing hands, dishes, and laundry.

There's a major problem. They were trying to cover it up," Rev. Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, told ABC News. "When you have lead in your water, you're poisoning the community. We must take a stand and make sure that every single community has clean water and we must do it immediately. We can't wait."

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The Benton Harbor water crisis is a matter of injustice.

As noted by The Guardian, Benton Harbor’s population is 85 percent Black, with 45 percent living below the poverty line. In contrast, the population of neighboring town St. Joseph, which also gets its water from Lake Michigan but has no lead contamination, is about 85 white, with only 7 percent of people living below the poverty line. Those statistics speak volumes.

The Benton Harbor water crisis would not happen in an affluent and/or predominantly white city — and St. Joseph’s existence is proof of that. BIPOC and low-income communities are the first to feel the effects of emergencies like this one, as well as emergencies like the climate crisis. Everyone deserves access to clean water, and the Michigan and Benton Harbor government leaders need to take more aggressive action in order to protect innocent lives.

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