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"This emergency is now:" Benton Harbor, Michigan, needs at least $11.4M for lead pipe replacement amid water crisis

Water crisis plagues Michigan city
Water crisis plagues Michigan city 02:25

Benton Harbor still needs at least $11.4 million to replace all of its lead service lines amid an ongoing lead presence in drinking water, according to Governor Gretchen Whitmer's office. The project's total price tag is $30 million, and it is projected to be completed within 18 months. 

"I cannot imagine the stress that moms and dads in Benton Harbor are under as they emerge from a pandemic, work hard to put food on the table, pay the bills, and face a threat to the health of their children," Whitmer, who visited Benton Harbor on Tuesday, said in a statement. "That's why we will not rest until every parent feels confident to give their kid a glass of water knowing that it is safe."

State protocols require lead service lines to be replaced by water suppliers at a rate of 5 to 7% annually, eventually replacing all lines over 15 to 20 years depending on the community's particular lead level. Various environmental and public advocacy organizations said in a petition filed last month that the city hasn't had its lead pipes replaced in years. The groups said the city has faced a "persistent, widespread, and severe public health crisis" in regard to drinking water since 2018. 

So far, the state of Michigan has delivered $18.6 million to Benton Harbor and another $10 million from the state's 2022 fiscal year budget. The Michigan Clean Water plan has also given $3 million dedicated to the water crisis, and the Environmental Protection Agency gave $5.6 million. 

Whitmer on Tuesday called on the state's legislature to fully fund the remaining $11.4 million needed to replace the lead service lines, suggesting available funding from the Biden administration's American Rescue Plan.

"We must complete these critical upgrades as quickly as possible, and I join the governor in calling on the legislature to work with us to appropriate the funds Michigan has received from the American Rescue Plan," Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist II said. 

The call comes after Whitmer announced an urgent, "all-hands-on-deck, whole-of-government approach" to the water crisis in an emergency directive aimed at providing joint resources from the state last week.

On Monday evening, the city's commission unanimously voted on a local state of emergency to coordinate resources for the city. 

"We're saying that this emergency is now," Benton Harbor's Mayor Pro Tem Duane Seats said Tuesday. "And we're going into the emergency room. We're going to let the doctor operate as soon as possible."

On Monday, Seats criticized the state for its response time to the issue and allocation of funding. "I don't think the state has proven to us that they can do a whole lot to help us in this battle," he said. "Stop playing games."

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there is no known safe level of lead in a child's blood. Negative health effects of drinking water with a lead presence include behavioral issues, a lower IQ, hyperactivity, slowed growth, anemia, cardiovascular effects, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems. 

"We want to get this lead out," Benton Harbor's Manager Ellis Mitchell said Tuesday. "We're going to get this lead out and we're going to get this lead out in the timeframe set up. We've been working tirelessly."

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