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24th September 2021
A Black town’s water is more poisoned than Flint’s. In a white town nearby, it’s clean- PART 1

Activists in Benton Harbor say it’s been an uphill battle getting the city, county and state to take action

Eric Lutz in Benton Harbor and Erin McCormick in California
Tue 21 Sep 2021 10.00 BST

Bobbie Clay first realized something was wrong a few years ago.

The water at her Benton Harbor, Michigan, home had started coming out of the tap looking “bubbly and whitish”. When she filled a glass with it, she could see matter floating around inside. “I became very concerned,” she recalled in a recent interview.

She wasn’t alone. For years, residents of this small, struggling city in south-west Michigan had been having similar problems. When Carmela Patton turned on her sink to make coffee, the water came out brown. When Emma Kinnard ran hers, it came out the color of tea and “sizzling like Alka-Seltzer”. Rasta Smith said his water looked normal, but had a “horrible” taste and a smell that reminded him of rotting sewage. “It’s bad, man,” he said. “It’s real bad.”

Some immediately began buying bottled water and encouraging friends and family to do the same. Others would continue to use the tap water for years and, in many cases, still do. When residents raised questions and concerns, they said, officials in the city and county were unresponsive.

Finally, in 2018, they found out what was going on: tap water samples tested that summer revealed lead levels of 22 parts per billion – well over the federal lead action level of 15 parts per billion and higher, even, than the 20 parts per billion nearby Flint averaged at the height of the crisis that made that city a national symbol of environmental injustice.

But for the last three years, neither the city of Benton Harbor, the county, nor the state have taken sufficient action, according to an emergency appeal filed recently by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The petition, which calls on the US Environmental Protection Agency to address the crisis and assist residents in the meantime, states that lead levels have consistently tested well above the federal action limit, with recordings as high in some samples as 889 parts per billion – nearly 60 times the action limit.

The health risks posed to the residents of this mostly Black, poverty-stricken city –which also happens to be the corporate headquarters of Whirlpool – are extraordinary. Children with lead poisoning tend to have lower IQs, high rates of attention deficit disorder, poor memory and a lack of impulse control. As they become adults, they are also at higher risk for kidney disease, stroke and hypertension. Studies have also connected lead exposure to incarceration for violent crime.

“It’s like they don’t care,” Clay said of the government inaction. “It feels crazy.”

Local activists, led by the Rev Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, have mobilized to fill the gaps they say have been left by institutions and local officials, working to raise awareness of the crisis among the city’s 10,000 residents, to advocate on their behalf and to ensure access to bottled water and filters.

In the absence of government solutions, Pinkney believes the work he and others are doing are just “bandages” on the problem. “You’re still gonna bleed,” he told the Guardian. “The lead is still gonna be there.”

There is no level of lead that is considered safe for human consumption. Pinkney’s advocacy did help secure a rare win: Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer this month proposed $20m to replace the city’s century-old lead pipes, provide water filters to families and make infrastructure improvements in the community. “Every Michigander deserves access to safe drinking water,” Whitmer said in a statement, “and every community deserves lead-free pipes.”

But Pinkney questioned whether Whitmer, a Democrat, could deliver on the proposal with a Republican-controlled legislature, and said in a press conference with the NRDC and other groups petitioning the EPA that even more significant – and urgent – action would be needed to address the city’s water emergency in full.

“We need safe water now,” Pinkney said. “We cannot wait.”

‘Where do you begin?

The story of Benton Harbor is a story of political dysfunction, institutional abandonment and systemic inequalities that have been amplified to near cartoonish levels.

Situated along the coast of Lake Michigan, the city sits just north of Harbor Country, a collection of bucolic towns popular among vacationing Chicagoans. Neighboring St Joseph, with its quaint downtown, bills itself as the “Riviera of the Midwest”, and is the home town of the influential Upton family, founder of the Whirlpool Corporation.

The twin cities are practically photo-negatives of one another: Benton Harbor is 85% Black; St Joseph is about 85% white. In Benton Harbor, more than 45% of residents live below the poverty line; cross the bridge into St Joseph and the poverty rate is just 7%, well below the state average. And while Benton Harbor has struggled for years with lead-contaminated water, those problems have not appeared to plague its neighbor.

“All the cities around us got good clean water and we don’t,” said Clay, who recalled her children marveling about the water in St Joseph after she picked them up from classes there once. “They say, ‘Momma, this water here is so good,’ and I’m like, ‘This is crazy.’”

“It’s devastating to see that,” she added.

Among residents, there is a prevailing sense that the problems that have been allowed to persist in impoverished, predominantly Black Benton Harbor would have been solved immediately if they were taking place in whiter, wealthier St Joseph.

“If it were St Joe, it would be getting done,” said Mary Alice Adams, a Benton Harbor city commissioner. “And it would be getting done damn fast.”

That it hasn’t in Benton Harbor, despite lead contamination far higher than the level set by the EPA, is due to the demographics of the city, some activists say. “Our health conditions are due to racism,” said the Rev Dr Don Tynes, a community activist and chief medical officer at the Benton Harbor Health Center, where he says he has seen the effects of lead contamination in his patients. “We need immediate relief.”

Locals describe a twofold problem in getting that relief: the county has “failed the community”, in the words of Pinkney, while the city government, which made national headlines a decade ago when the state-appointed emergency manager suspended the powers of elected officials, is beset by dysfunction. (Emergency management, which Adams describes as “the great takeover” of Benton Harbor, ended in 2016.)

The mayor of Benton Harbor, Marcus Muhammad, city manager, Ellis Mitchell and water superintendent, Michael O’Malley, did not return the Guardian’s request for comment for this story. The EPA also did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s hurtful,” said Carmela Patton, who has been a resident for 43 years but has come to believe that the only way to give her children a “fair chance” is to move. “You can’t talk to your city officials. You can’t talk to your mayor. It’s like, where do you begin? … Me personally, I’m ready to go. I’m ready to leave now.”

‘Make it make sense’

To some residents here, that’s exactly the point.

Concerns about gentrification in Benton Harbor have accelerated over the last decade, with the opening in 2010 of Harbor Shores – the Jack Niklaus-designed lakefront golf club that has hosted the Senior PGA Tour Championship four times – and of the shiny new office campus for the appliance giant Whirlpool on the St Joseph River in 2012.

Founded by Louis Upton, patriarch of the family that includes the model Kate Upton and Republican congressman Fred Upton, Whirlpool is a controversial presence in Benton Harbor.

Some here have viewed the jobs it has provided and the investments it has made in the city as essential to revitalizing the community. But to others, including Pinkney, who has been waging a bitter battle against the corporation for nearly two decades, Whirlpool is turning Benton Harbor into something of a company town, while the Black population that has been here since the Great Migration is being forced out. “It’s coming,” Pinkney said of gentrification, as he drove through a development of large, lakeside homes near the golf course. “It’s just a matter of time.”

That golf course, built on land that had been part of one of the oldest public parks in the state, and the Whirlpool campus can seem a world away from the vacant lots, dilapidated homes and housing projects that dominate the rest of this city. But all of it is packed into the same four-square-mile tract of land – an uncanny juxtaposition that, for longtime residents, can seem to intensify the feelings of institutional abandonment.

“It’s sad,” said Adams, the commissioner, who believes that lead-contaminated water exacerbated her late daughter’s seizures. “This is America. We’ve already been deprived and red-lined out of the American dream. Is fresh drinking water, the thing that’s life, too much to ask? Make it make sense.”

In a statement to the Guardian, Whirlpool Corporation said that it, too, used Benton Harbor water and shared residents’ concerns about lead contamination. “Whirlpool Corporation has deep roots in the city of Benton Harbor,” the company said, stating that it has “invested over $250m in the community”. “Citizens deserve clean drinking water, and all resources available need to be leveraged to conduct the proper tests and make the necessary changes.”

...continued in PART 2