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The Great Lakes region is blessed with an abundance of water. But water quality, affordability, and aging water infrastructure are vulnerabilities that have been ignored for far too long. In this series, members of the Great Lakes News Collaborative, Michigan Radio, Bridge Michigan, Great Lakes Now, and Circle of Blue, explore what it might take to preserve and protect this precious resource.

EPA says studies of Benton Harbor drinking water will take through early February to finish

Bottled Water
Mark Brush
/
Michigan Radio

For two months, people in Benton Harbor have been warned to only consume bottled water. Michigan health officials made the recommendation for the city of 9,000 in early October “out of an abundance of caution.”

Residents were told they shouldn’t use their tap water to cook, rinse their food, brush their teeth - and certainly not to mix baby formula - because of the potential risk of lead exposure.

This is not the standard warning for elevated lead in drinking water. Typically, communities with elevated lead levels are advised to use certified lead filters for drinking water.

But lead levels in Benton Harbor’s drinking water have been continuously elevated since 2018.

In September, a coalition of national and local groups called for the EPA to use its emergency powers to provide bottled water, among other immediate concerns. Later that month, the state offered to do that.

It’s bottled water for everybody in Benton Harbor, until the EPA and state health officials finish a set of studies to figure out if water filters will work on the city’s specific water chemistry.

Note: Bottled water is available for the residents of Benton Harbor. For a list of distribution sites and times, click here or call 2-1-1.

Update on EPA Benton Harbor filter study 

The U.S. EPA has sampled water at more than 150 homes in Benton Harbor in about a month.

More visits are scheduled, according to Tera Fong, Director of EPA’s Water Division in the region that covers Michigan. Fong expects they’ll have the 200 samples they need by the end of next week.

Fong says some results from the lab are in, and have gone directly to residents whose homes were sampled.

“Once we have those preliminary results, we are calling the residents and following up with a letter that relays those preliminary results. Once we have the final result, we’ll also send the final letter,” Fong said.

But she says it’ll be late January or early February before the results are analyzed and made public. That means at least two more months that residents will need to plan to keep using bottled water for cooking, drinking, rinsing food, brushing teeth and mixing baby formula.

“We do believe that certified filters, that are properly installed and maintained, are very effective in reducing lead,” Fong said. “We just don’t have any of the specific results here yet for Benton Harbor.”

The EPA is conducting three studies at homes with known or suspected lead water pipes. They’re studying how the specific water chemistry in Benton Harbor could impact potential lead exposure and impact human health. The studies include:

  • A filter study to determine if certified filters are working as expected to reduce lead. 
  • A sequential study is to determine if lead is present in a home’s water and if it’s coming from the home’s plumbing or water service line.
  • And a particle study to determine how much lead is present in small particles in drinking water.

If the EPA studies show certified filters work in Benton Harbor, health officials could change their recommendations about consuming only bottled water.

But Fong acknowledges the lead studies are not the only factor in determining whether to signal to Benton Harbor residents when it’s safe to start consuming filtered water again.

Disinfection treatment, water plant problems are also a factor 

During a September inspection of the city’s water plant, EPA and state environmental regulators found major violations, relating not only to lead but also to important disinfection treatment. Disinfection chemicals are added to prevent harmful bacteria like legionella, cryptosporidium and giardia from growing and developing in the water once it leaves the treatment plant.

Inspectors found the plant’s chlorine treatment monitoring equipment was broken. Staff weren't sampling often enough to make sure chlorine was at the right level and had bad record keeping on how much chemical treatment they used.

“The Sept. 20-27 inspection paints a picture of a utility system in overall disarray,” MLive reported. “The report indicates many issues with the system have remained unfixed since 2018, when (state regulators) noted them during an operational evaluation known as a sanitary survey.”

After that inspection, the EPA ordered the city to correct a number of violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act and complete a study “to address significant technical, managerial, and financial deficiencies.”

“EPA’s looking at the total pictures combined,” Fong said. “I mean, the order and the stud(ies) each have their own objectives and timelines, but we do want to make sure we understand and are able to convey to the public the overall state of the water system in Benton Harbor,” Fong said.

An EPA spokeswoman says filter study samples are analyzed for total metals, and sampling teams also monitor chlorine at every house sampled and report that information to the city and state. The state follows up to collect bacteria samples at homes where samples show chlorine levels are low. So far, all of those samples collected by the state have tested negative for bacteria, the EPA official said.

Fong said the EPA would continue to coordinate with state regulators and public health officials to understand the safety of the city’s drinking water.

Lindsey Smith is Michigan Radio’s investigative reporter. She previously served as Michigan Radio’s Morning News Editor and West Michigan Reporter.
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