Work to replace aging lead water service lines in Benton Harbor nearly finished

99% of city’s water service lines verified non-lead or replaced

FILE - Volunteers prepare bottled water to be distributed to residents at the local high school parking lot Oct. 21, 2021, in Benton Harbor, Mich. Lead pipes have caused harm for decades. In recent years, residents in Newark, N.J., and Benton Harbor, were forced to use bottled water for basic needs like cooking and drinking, after tests revealed elevated levels of lead. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File) (Charles Rex Arbogast, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. – The work to replace aging lead water service lines in Benton Harbor is almost complete.

The work is five months ahead of schedule and was done at no cost to residents, according to state officials. As of Wednesday, 99% of the city’s water service lines have been inspected and replaced with new copper lines if lead or galvanized pipe was found.

Nearly 4,500 water service lines have been replaced or verified as being non-lead lines. There are less than 40 inspections left to complete.

The next phase of the project is reducing in-home lead exposure risks. Lead-reducing filters, bottled water, free home lead inspections and abatement services will continue to be offered to help make City of Benton Harbor homes safe.

EGLE pro-actively ordered Benton Harbor to remove 7% of its lead service lines in 12 months, beginning July 1, 2021. Officials expedited the timeline with a goal of 100% replacement by March 2023.

Nearly 2,800 “Right of Access” Water Service Line Replacement Agreement forms have been completed by the 2,900 current water customers in Benton Harbor -- a necessary step to allow the contractors to access private properties to perform the work.

The Water Service Line Replacement Agreement may be accessed, filled out and submitted online. Forms may also be submitted to Abonmarche, 95 West Main Street, Benton Harbor, MI 49022 or emailed to Sandy Riehl at sriehl@abonmarche.com. For questions, call 269-926-4557.

More information is available online at the Benton Harbor project dashboard.

Statements from local, state officials

“Every Michigander deserves access to safe drinking water and have confidence in the water coming out of their tap,” said Governor Whitmer. “Last year, community partners, local officials, state departments and federal agencies came together to secure bipartisan funding and set an ambitious target to replace every lead line to protect the health and safety of every family in the City of Benton Harbor. We are getting it done ahead of schedule thanks to all our partners and most importantly, the Michiganders who did the hard work of replacing these lines. Let’s keep working together to protect drinking water.”

“Upgrading water infrastructure is critical to boosting access to clean water and ensuring Michiganders can be confident that their water is safe to drink,” said Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II. “Today’s announcement is a result of the hard work of community leaders, state and federal officials and Benton Harbor residents. It proves that we can come together and take action to protect the health and safety of Michigan families. Governor Whitmer and I are thankful for our partners, and we will continue working to invest in water infrastructure in communities throughout Michigan.”

“Benton Harbor’s future depends on its ability to meet the needs of its residents,” said Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad. “Thank you to my partners in the City of Benton Harbor, Berrien County, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, the State of Michigan and the EPA for working with us to improve the quality of life in our community. We look forward to continuing our work together.”

“The Lead Line Replacement Project, started in October 2021, was planned to be completed in March 2023. The fact that we have not only replaced virtually all of the lead lines in the City of Benton Harbor but have finished the job ahead of schedule is a tremendous accomplishment,” said Ellis Mitchell, City of Benton Harbor City Manager. “A project of this magnitude could not have been accomplished without tremendous resources and support from every level of government. Thank you to all our partners who worked with us to get this critical work done.”

“From replacing our water lines, to distributing bottled water and removing lead from our homes, our local, state and federal leaders, as well as community partners, came together and partnered with the Benton Harbor community in a way that makes me truly proud, said Princella Tobias, City of Benton Harbor Resident and Benton Harbor Team Solutions Leader. “This recovery is just the beginning, and we are hopeful that once we move past this crisis, we’ll see more investment, new opportunities, and a brighter future for Benton Harbor.”

“The replacement of lead service lines is an important step in making City of Benton Harbor homes lead safe,” said Elizabeth Hertel, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Director. “It’s important that Benton Harbor families continue to use filters or bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula until they have their free home lead inspection from MDHHS to ensure there are not additional sources of lead in their homes from paint or plumbing.”

“EGLE is proud to work with the City of Benton Harbor along with our state partners and U.S. EPA on this critical infrastructure project,” said Liesl Clark, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) Director. “These new copper service lines and our ongoing technical support to the city’s drinking water plant will improve the long-term reliability and safety of Benton Harbor’s drinking water infrastructure and help rebuilding people’s trust and confidence in their water.”

“EPA was pleased to support the successful effort to replace lead service lines throughout Benton Harbor,” said EPA Region 5 Administrator Debra Shore. “Every American has the right to drink water that is free from lead and other contaminants, but there are still 6 to 10 million lead services lines in cities and towns across the country, many of which are in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides $15 billion to communities to replace those lead pipes so American families will no longer have to fear the harmful health effects caused by lead and other pollutants in their water.”

“Replacing the lead service lines required an all-hands-on-deck effort from local, state and federal officials working together to serve every household and business in the community,” said U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joe). “I was glad to be a partner working with all the leaders and hard-working construction folks of Southwest Michigan to get the job done early.”

“No family should have to question whether their water is safe to drink,” said U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “It’s been an all-hands-on-deck effort to remove the lead service lines in Benton Harbor. This is an important step forward for Benton Harbor.”

“Making sure every Michigander has access to safe, quality drinking water has been one of my top priorities in the Senate, which is why I strongly supported the legislation that provided the federal funding to help make this project in Benton Harbor possible,” said U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-Mich.). “I’ll continue to work with Governor Whitmer and our local and federal partners to protect the health and safety of the people of Benton Harbor and to replace the remaining lead service lines in Michigan.”

Are there symptoms of lead exposure?

Unfortunately, lead exposure in children is difficult to notice and most children have no obvious symptoms immediately.

According to the CDC, lead quickly enters the body and can cause harm. When a child swallows lead, their blood lead level rises. When the exposure stops, the amount of lead in the blood decreases over time.

Lead is released through urine, sweat and feces. Lead is also stored in bones and it can take decades for lead stores in the bones to decrease.

Read: Experts dive into why there’s an alarming increase in lead poisoning among children

Should I test my child for lead exposure?

Some children are more likely to be exposed to lead than others.

The best way to know if a child has been exposed to lead is to have their blood tested.

The first test is usually done by taking a finger-prick or heel-prick sample. If that test comes back positive, a second test is usually used to confirm. A blood draw test may be ordered to confirm the blood lead level seen in a test.

The CDC recommends that children who experience the following should be tested for lead:

  • Live or spend time in a house or building built before 1978
  • Are from low-income household
  • Are immigrants, refugees, or recently adopted from less developed countries
  • Live or spend time with someone who works with lead or has hobbies that expose them to lead

Children enrolled in Medicaid are required to get tested for lead at ages 12 and 24 months, or age 24-72 months if they have never been tested. Young children often put their hands or other objects in their mouth, which means they are more likely to be exposed to lead than older children.

Click here to learn more about blood lead testing in Michigan.

What are the effects of childhood lead exposure?

Children who have been exposed to lead may experience a lower IQ, a decreased ability to pay attention and underperformance in school.

The CDC said that there is evidence that childhood exposure can cause long-term harm.

Exposure to lead can cause the following:

  • Damage to the brain and nervous system
  • Slowed growth and development
  • Learning and behavior problems
  • Hearing and speech problems

The health effects of exposure are more harmful to children who are younger than six years old because they are still growing.

Read: Wayne County prosecutor considers next steps in Flint Water Crisis

Does Michigan offer services to help combat lead poisoning?

If your child has an elevated blood lead level you can contact a state, local or national program to apply for lead services.

Through lead services, someone will help you find and fix lead hazards, identify lead in drinking water hazards and lower your child’s elevated blood lead level.

Services previously offered to children with blood lead levels greater than or equal to 4.5 µg/dL, including nursing case management, home environmental lead investigations and lead abatement, will be expanded to eligible families and households with children with confirmed blood lead levels greater than or equal to 3.5 µg/dL.

Click here to see if you qualify for any state or local services.


About the Author:

Kayla is a Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit. Before she joined the team in 2018 she worked at WILX in Lansing as a digital producer.