‘Mind-boggling’ lead levels prompt pleas for EPA help

By Hannah Northey | 09/10/2021 12:39 PM EST

A glass of water is filled at a kitchen tap. Cate Gillon/Getty Images

Just three hours west of Flint, Mich., where the country’s largest drinking water crisis unfolded, another community is calling for immediate federal and state help in the face of skyrocketing lead levels in drinking water.

The push to eradicate lead contamination in drinking water has gained national attention in recent months as President Biden and top administration officials called for the removal of all lead pipelines as part of an infrastructure package working its way through the legislative process.

That messaging has led to political wrangling on Capitol Hill as a reconciliation package takes shape, with advocates calling for Biden to ensure $45 billion is included to remove all of the nation’s lead service lines. House members yesterday followed through on that call and included $30 billion for the effort in a reconciliation package. That amount would add onto $15 billion already included in the infrastructure bill to fulfill Biden’s goal (E&ENews PM, Sept. 9).

The funding is highly sought after in communities grappling with contaminated drinking water.

Yesterday, a collection of residents and environmental groups representing the city of Benton Harbor, a majority Black community of 9,700 residents along the shores of Lake Michigan, petitioned EPA to take emergency action under the Safe Drinking Water Act and order state and local officials to provide residents with safe drinking water and ensure the city’s drinking water complies with federal lead limits. They also called for the removal of nearly 6,000 lead service lines throughout the city.

They blamed city and state officials for failing to protect residents in Benton Harbor, which has surpassed EPA’s federal limit on lead since 2018. The petition calls on EPA to provide an alternative source of drinking water for residents, ensure water in schools is safe and for the city to advise residents not to drink unfiltered water.

Residents say the unfolding crisis is a matter of environmental justice and echoes the public health disaster in Flint beginning in 2014 when thousands of residents were exposed to contaminated drinking water after the city switched sourcing water from the Flint River. Petitioners emphasized that 85 percent of Benton Harbor’s population is Black, with approximately 45 percent of the population having an income below the federal poverty line.

While EPA’s current regulations require system operators to take action if lead is detected at a level of 15 parts per billion, authors of the petition argued that some readings in Benton Harbor have exceeded 400 ppb, but the city and state have not taken action.

“The levels we’re seeing in Benton Harbor are as high as they were in the early days of the Flint water crisis and before actions began to take place in that community,” Cyndi Roper, a senior policy advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said during an online press event yesterday.

A spokesperson for EPA said the agency had received the petition and is considering the issues and concerns raised, as well as monitoring lead-related health issues in Benton Harbor. The spokesperson noted Benton Harbor was one of 10 communities to participate in roundtables with EPA as the agency works to revamp a Trump-era Lead and Copper Rule (Greenwire, Aug. 24).

Stacey Branscumb, a resident of Benton Harbor, said during the Zoom call that he believes high lead levels in his tap water killed his pet fish and his Great Dane after the animal drank the water there and began to bloat.

Branscumb said tests of water at his house showed lead levels of 469 ppb.

"It’s mind-boggling that something like that is going on, and you never know which one is worse, COVID is out here, bad water," he said. "A lot of people [are] unaware of how much lead is in the water and what effects it could have on you."

Need for funds, oversight

The residents and groups who signed the petition emphasized that Branscumb’s story isn’t isolated in Benton Harbor and said Congress must fulfill Biden’s call for $45 billion to remove all of the nation’s lead service lines.

They also highlighted in the petition that EPA has taken rare emergency action before, including this summer when the agency issued an emergency administrative order directing officials in Clarksburg, W.Va., to identify homes and businesses with lead service lines after children there were diagnosed with elevated lead levels (E&ENews PM, July 15).

"There are at least 61 samples to date which are well in excess of the EPA lead action level, including some over 100 ppb, and there are hundreds of known or suspected lead service lines," the groups wrote. "We note that Clarksburg has a 92 percent white population, while Benton Harbor has a population of about 90 percent people of color."

Earlier this week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, or EGLE, proposed using $200 million in pandemic funds to replace lead service lines across the state, including $20 million to remove all of the lines in Benton Harbor within five years.

The state has taken other steps. In 2018, Michigan began enforcing the nation’s toughest rules to crack down on lead in drinking water, a move spurred by the Flint crisis. Under the program, the level for taking action on lead is 12 ppb.

Scott Dean, a spokesperson for EGLE, in an email yesterday outlined his agency’s efforts in conjunction with the city of Benton Harbor to address lead contamination, including installing corrosion control treatment technology at the city’s water plant in March 2019, increasing monitoring of lead and copper, and increasing the testing frequency from every three years to every six months.

EGLE, Dean said, also helped the city secure $5.6 million in EPA funding for lead service line replacement and a study that is currently underway to improve the effectiveness of the corrosion control program, he said.

But environmental groups and residents yesterday said the city and EGLE’s actions have been marked by delays in requiring corrosion control study and are “grossly inadequate and have been in violation of the federal and Michigan lead and copper rule.”

The groups also argued that Benton Harbor residents can’t wait five years for all lead-contaminating pipelines to be removed under Whitmer’s plan and said more money is needed to get the job done.

The city of Benton Harbor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Rev. Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, said on the Zoom call that it could cost up to $40 million to remove lead services lines in the city and educate the public about filters and flushing water after services lines are removed.

“We would need more than $20 million from the governor at this time to make this thing work,” said Pinkney.