Michigan officials blame locals for empty Benton Harbor water site

BENTON HARBOR, MI — State of Michigan officials blamed local advocates for the lack of bottled water at a Benton Harbor distribution site on Friday, where city residents waited for about hours before leaving empty-handed.

There was no water handout at God’s Household of Faith church on Pipestone Street on Friday, Oct. 22. That was despite city and state notices it would be there from 2 to 6 p.m. for residents relying on bottle distribution amid a lead crisis and service outage after a major main break that left the whole city without any water for part of the week.

Bob Wheaton, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), said in an email the state was “advised at the last minute” that the church “canceled its commitment to distribute water this afternoon.”

“Bottled water was delivered to the site and was ready to be distributed,” Wheaton wrote. “We realize the people of Benton Harbor have been through a lot and regret that they were inconvenienced.”

Drivers in a mid-afternoon line of cars that stretched down the block were told to wait and hold their spot in line by the city manager’s office, which said the water was on site.

A locked white semi-trailer was parked behind the church.

“I just spoke with someone from the state,” a secretary in city manager Ellis Mitchell’s office told Benton Harbor resident Linda Seuell over the phone about 3:20 p.m., more than an hour-and-a-half after Seuell arrived. “I know the water is there, but they’re trying to see if they can get somebody to come and distribute it out, but don’t get out of line yet.”

Seuell took it in stride.

“I’m not really mad,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on, because all the other places are always on time. You know, things happen.”

Confused residents sought help from journalists on scene. Several TV news reporters showed up to cover the distribution. One helped walk a young girl from a car at the front of the line to a nearby house to use the bathroom.

MLive called the city manager’s office about 3 p.m. and was told the distribution should be occurring. Berrien County Health Department spokeswoman Gillian Conrad sent a text about 3:30 p.m. saying the church was a state-organized and operated site and “I have no clue as to why one of their sites isn’t functioning.”

“I hope you can get a hold of someone there soon!” she wrote.

Messages to DHHS weren’t returned until 6 p.m. The department distributed a city press release Thursday identifying the site as a Friday distribution site.

Rev. Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, which has distributed water there, texted that that church was not a distribution site on Friday.

Water deliveries were taking place nearby. Pallets were dropped off for residents two blocks away at an apartment building at 250 E. Wall Street, where city commissioner Jerry Edwards, a building resident, said he’d received conflicting lists of Friday sites.

Edwards said he saw people lining up at the Pipestone church for water hours before it was even scheduled to begin. “I don’t know what to mix up is,” he said.

Drivers waiting in the rain eventually grew tired and left about 4:15 p.m., according to people who remained on site after MLive reporters returned from checking other locations in the city where water has been distributed before.

The Pipestone campus has been a regular distribution site this month as the state has surged bottled water into Benton Harbor after advising residents to avoid the tap water “out of an abundance of caution” on Oct. 6.

Officials asked residents to ease back into water use to alleviate strain on the system after the main break was fixed, expanding the need for an alternative to tap water.

Drive-up distribution took place earlier Friday without incident at the Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency on Miller Street from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The state said water distribution would take place over the weekend from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m on Saturday at the Boys & Girls Club on Nate Wells Sr. Drive; and 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Abundant Life Church of God on Columbus Ave and 4 to 6 p.m. at Brotherhood of All Nations church on Monroe Street.

Benton Harbor’s beleaguered water system has been testing for high levels of lead since 2018, when the city’s 90th percentile lead testing began showing exceedances of the action level of 15 parts-per-billion (ppb). Since then, the levels have remained elevated in each consecutive testing round. Individual homes have shown from extremely high lead levels this year, including tests at 889, 605, 469, 109 and 107-ppb, according to state data.

A petition filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in September by a group of environmental and public health advocates is seeking a federal intervention in the city, which was under state-appointed emergency financial management from 2010 to 2016.

Despite recent updates at the Benton Harbor water treatment plant and storage tank, much of the city’s distribution system is a century old, according to the state. Many homes built before the 1960s likely have lead lines. The state estimates it will cost $30 million to replace the city’s lead lines, which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has pledged to do by April 2023.

Under questioning during a state House oversight hearing on Thursday, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) Director Liesl Clark admitted that the water is not safe to drink, a declaration local advocates have pushed state officials to make.

EGLE staff testified that part of the heightened response this fall to a problem the state has been trying to fix for three years was sparked by concerns that lead nanoparticles may pass through faucet filters the state and county have distributed to mitigate exposure risk.

Republicans are attacking the governor over the issue, claiming her administration hid the problem before now. The Senate is requesting documents in an oversight probe into the state’s efforts to adjust water treatment in Benton Harbor.

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