By Sami El-Hajjar, age 12
Benton Harbor, Mich., is struggling with contamination of their water caused by lead pipes, and residents are blaming the state of Michigan for ignoring the issue for so long. Since 2018, Benton Harbor’s water failed six consecutive sampling tests, and some critics argue that the lead levels exceed those found in Flint, Mich., in 2014, according to PBS.
In November 2021, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accused Benton Harbor’s water treatment facility of being disorganized and full of broken machinery. “They tested the water some time ago and they didn’t say we couldn’t drink it then,” Fredia Armstrong, a Benton Harbor resident, reported to MLive.com. “But all of a sudden we can’t drink it?” Many residents are now worried about the safety of the water and hope that it will be drinkable soon.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer aims to replace all of Benton Harbor’s lead pipes in 18 months. However, local activists don’t think it can be done that quickly. It took Flint five years to replace their pipes after an all too similar crisis. Residents are now forced to use bottled water to drink and cook with.
Experts believe that the lead was in the water for so long that a lot of damage has already been done. No level of lead is considered safe, it can stunt brain growth and damage major organs if consumed. Taking into account that 4.5% of Benton Harbor’s population has elevated lead levels in their blood, many of these consequences may already be irreversible.
Citizens of Benton Harbor think their city has been underinvested in because the state of Michigan has put the money into richer, predominantly white cities. Benton Harbor is over 80% Black, and over half of the population lives below the poverty line. Studies show the patterns of underinvestment in poorer areas with many residents of color. A study conducted by Nationwide found that the risk of elevated lead levels in Black children is almost double that for white children. Environmental experts agree that long-term investment is needed to fix Benton Harbor’s lead crisis.