Heard on Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson

Another Michigan Lead Crisis Is Erupting in Benton Harbor

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Advocates admonish what they call a lack of accountability from all levels of government in the lead contamination of another Black city’s water system.

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The city of Benton Harbor recently declared a state of emergency due to severe lead levels in its drinking water, higher than those of Flint during the height of the Flint Water Crisis in 2014. Benton Harbor residents are calling for more robust emergency services from the state, which had knowledge of the city’s lead contamination since 2018. 

You have to say the words ‘the water is unsafe.’ In order to bring back trust, you have to tell the truth.” —Rev. Edward Pinkney, Benton Harbor


Listen: Two advocates on the state’s limited emergency response to Benton Harbor’s water crisis.


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Nick Leonard is executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, one of the groups that filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for federal intervention in Benton Harbor. He says the city’s crisis is similar to that of Flint six years ago, but, “What’s different in Benton Harbor than Flint — we don’t really know what caused the contamination there [in Benton Harbor],” he says. ”We saw elevated lead levels starting in 2018, but there was no similar discernible decision or event that seemed to cause that.”

The reality is we have another majority Black city that is not able to turn on its drinking water … Quite frankly, we were late. Three years is a long time.” —Nick Leonard, Great Lakes Environmental Law Center

Leonard says the limited emergency response from the state is unacceptable, following patterns of disinvestment in majority Black cities. “The kind of response we need is one that centers Benton Harbor’s residents,” he says. ”Was this problem decades in its creation? Yes. Is it something they [the Whitmer administration] were the sole cause of? No,” he says. “But the reality is we have another majority Black city that is not able to turn on its drinking water… Quite frankly, we were late. Three years is a long time.”

Rev. Edward Pinkney is a resident of Benton Harbor and leader of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council. He says the situation in Benton Harbor is not being treated as a crisis. “That’s the language you receive; ‘we’ll look into it.’ There’s no time.” Pinkney says the emergency response from the state should reflect the severity of how residents are being affected. “You have to say the words ‘the water is unsafe.’ In order to bring back trust, you have to tell the truth.”

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Nora Rhein, Detroit Today Intern

Nora Rhein works with the production team on “Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson” on 101.9 WDET. She’s very proud to be a public radio nerd.


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