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Residents of Benton Harbor will get filters, bottled water, blood lead testing in children

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The state will temporarily distribute bottled water to Benton Harbor residents with elevated lead levels in their city drinking water.

Benton Harbor officials first found lead levels above the federal action level in the drinking water in the fall of 2018. The move comes after a coalition of national and local groups called for the federal government to step in and use its emergency powers to provide bottled water to residents earlier this month.

Scott Dean, a spokesperson with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, said now they're also going door to door to ensure all residents are offered a free water filter to remove lead in their drinking water.

The department plans to offer all residents a water filter by October 8. But Reverend Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, said educating residents on proper water filter usage and building back community trust might take more time and effort.

"You got to build trust now because this community has been poisoned at least the last three years,” Pinkney said.

Blood lead level testing for adolescents and children six years old and younger will also be made accessible to residents by October, according to Dean.

Dean also said the state plans to expand public education and its community outreach campaign to increase awareness of the city’s current water quality and other resources available to residents. He added that to build trust with the community, the state will establish a “Water Ambassadors Program,” recruiting non-government community members “to assist with individual outreach at a grassroots level.”

Governor Gretchen Whitmer proposed earlier this month to spend $20 million to replace all the lead water pipes in Benton Harbor within the next five years.

Cyndi Roper with the Natural Resources Defense Council called the bottled water distribution program “weak,” saying that emergency water should continue to be distributed to residents beyond October 8.

“They're not listening to the community as to what they want and what they need,” she said.

Over the past three years, the city’s drinking water lead level test results have ranged from 22 to 32 parts per billion of lead. The federal action level for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion.

"It took three years for this to happen, which is ridiculous,” Pinkney said about the state’s plan. “This should have been done the first year that there was a problem.”

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