Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she visited Benton Harbor on Tuesday to listen to residents who have been urged to use bottled water because of elevated levels of lead in their tap water.
Whitmer’s stop, which wasn’t publicly disclosed until it was over, came hours after city commissioners unanimously declared an emergency and empowered Mayor Marcus Muhammad to lead Benton Harbor’s response.
“We’ve heard the cry of the people. … Anything the mayor needs from this commission, we’re going to work with him tooth and nail,” Commissioner Duane Seats said.
Benton Harbor, a predominantly Black mostly low-income community of 9,700, is in southwestern Michigan, 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Chicago.
Lead levels in water have exceeded the federal threshold. Unlike Flint where state-appointed managers switched the water source and then didn’t properly treat it, the situation in Benton Harbor is different in some ways.
Benton Harbor, like many communities, gets water from Lake Michigan but the system moves water through old lead pipes. Some experts believe a drop in water volume due to fewer customers has also contributed to contamination.
Lead is considered harmful at any level, and children are particularly vulnerable because it can slow growth and result in behavioral problems.
The state is providing free water to residents for cooking and drinking.
“We will not rest until every parent feels confident to give their kid a glass of water knowing that it is safe,” Whitmer said in a written statement.
The cost to replace about 6,000 lead service lines is estimated at $30 million. Nearly $19 million in state and federal money has been set aside, and Whitmer hopes the Republican-controlled Legislature will agree to use more federal money to reach the goal.
The mayor was asked at a news conference if he was disappointed that Whitmer hadn’t acted sooner.
“My Bible says that money solveth all things,” Muhammad said. “This is a $30 million job, and the money was not there three years ago.”
He said nobody wins in a “blame game.”
“She can’t act alone,” Muhammad said. “This is a democracy. … I’m just happy today to stand here and say we do have money, we are moving forward.”
Separately, the state Senate Oversight Committee asked the state’s environmental agency for documents related to Benton Harbor, including email and correspondence dating to 2019, when Whitmer, a Democrat, took office.
State Sen. Ed McBroom, the Republican committee chairman, cited a recent Detroit News report that said the state failed to tell residents that their water was unsafe for more than two years while trying treatments to reduce lead levels.
The Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy will explain “how Benton Harbor officials and residents were informed of drinking water lead” levels, spokesman Hugh McDiarmid Jr. said.