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Benton Harbor declares local state of emergency over lead contamination in drinking water

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer visited Benton Harbor the morning of Oct. 19 for a listening session with residents and local political leaders.

The Benton Harbor City Commission declared a local state of emergency Monday night in response to high levels of lead in the city’s drinking water. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer visited the city Tuesday morning for a listening session with residents and local political leaders.

During a Tuesday press conference, Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammed said the local state of emergency will sound a louder alarm to the public that this is a crisis.

“This gives the city of Benton Harbor another layer of action,” Muhammed said. “Removing, replacing all lead service lines is a Mount Everest of a job, and it’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck, whole government approach on a local level.”

Muhammed said the city will be forming a community response team and start conducting door-to-door lead education campaigns.

The city will also work with state and federal officials to distribute free bottled water, provide free or low-cost lead testing and health care and coordinate any other actions needed to solve the crisis.

In addition, Muhammed said the Benton Harbor City Manager and city staff will be in Lansing this Thursday to speak about the water situation before the Michigan House of Representatives Oversight Committee at 10:30 a.m.

Mayor Pro Tempore Duane Seats said the City Commission has given the mayor “full power, full strength” to lead the city during this emergency, and that Muhammed will be working full-time as mayor for the duration of the crisis.

“We need our mayor to be here every day possible — working extended hours, meeting with those who need to be met with,” Seats said. “We don’t need any red tape between our mayor and any government official, any person that’s helping, any person that’s willing to put their hands to the plow and work.”

Last week, Gov. Whitmer announced the state plans to replace all lead service lines in Benton Harbor in the next 18 months. The state is sending 35,000 gallons of bottled water to the city every week until the water is safe.

Replacing all the lines is expected to cost $30 million, and $18.6 million of that has been allocated with $10 million coming from Michigan’s 2022 budget, $3 million from the Michigan Clean Water plan and $5.6 million from an Environmental Protection Agency grant.

During the Tuesday listening session in Benton Harbor, Whitmer called on the Michigan legislature to fund the remaining $11.4 million needed with American Rescue Plan dollars.

High levels of lead were first detected in Benton Harbor’s drinking water in 2018. Recent city data found a lead level of 889 parts per billion in some homes — that’s more than 59 times the federal safe limit of 15 parts per billion.

This year’s citywide reading was 24 parts per billion, but it was only last week that the state advised all residents to only use bottled water for drinking, cooking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula.

In early September, a coalition of local and state groups submitted a petition calling for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to step in with emergency powers to provide bottled water to all Benton Harbor residents.

The state began distributing bottled water, filters and lead testing kits to Benton Harbor residents in late September.