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23rd September 2021
...continued from Part 1

No end in sight’

Dean Scott, a spokesperson for Michigan’s department of environment, Great Lakes, and energy, said in a statement that the state was working with the city to bring it into compliance with the state’s clean water laws and to “minimize any potential health impacts” on residents in the meantime. Scott said there had been progress: the city has been installing corrosion control treatment technology, “begun the process” of replacing 6,000 service lines, and is now “sampling twice as many homes as it did previously and has increased the testing frequency to every six months instead of every three years”.

Residents, community leaders and environmental groups say more needs to be done – both to address the existing crisis in Benton Harbor and to prevent future water emergencies nationwide.

The NRDC estimates that as many as 12.8m lead pipes and service lines still connect homes to water in all 50 states. While contamination can often be held at bay by treating water with chemicals to keep lead from leaching out of pipes, environmentalists worry that this stopgap measure could become less effective as the country’s infrastructure continues to age. “Drinking water won’t be safe until the country pulls the millions of lead pipes out of the ground found in every state,” Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health at the NRDC, told the Guardian in July.

Making lead pipes a thing of the past could stave off future crises – but the harm in Benton Harbor has already been felt. Attorney Nick Leonard of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, which worked with the NRDC to draft the emergency appeal to the EPA, said in a press conference with Pinkney on 9 September that, based on what the city has done, “it could be several more years” before the problem is fixed.

“There’s seemingly no end in sight,” Leonard said, noting that delays in Benton Harbor are especially disturbing because it is an environmental justice community where residents may be exposed to other pollutants and have poor access to healthcare.

In the EPA petition, the NRDC, the Benton Harbor Community Water Council and 18 other groups said the water in Benton Harbor posed an “imminent and substantial endangerment to public health” and called on the EPA to act now to resolve it. The petition also demanded federal intervention – including through education, technical assistance and an “immediate source of safe drinking water”. Referring to the NRDC’s demands on federal resources, Leonard said at the 9 September press conference: “that is what we expect.”

In the meantime, community activists continue to work toward solutions themselves.

The day after filing the emergency appeal, Pinkney hosted a bi-monthly water giveaway in the parking lot of his church – a proud, dark-brick building overlooking the neighborhood on Pipestone Street.

It was a warm September afternoon, and the seemingly inexhaustible reverend was in good spirits, shouting greetings through the windows of residents’ cars as volunteers loaded jugs of Glacier Mist water into their trunks. By the end of the day, he and his volunteers had distributed 500 gallons to residents, along with gift bags that included Nalgene water bottles adorned with a logo designed by Rasta Smith, a Benton Harbor graphic artist who says he has been working to raise awareness of water contamination in the city for the last eight years.

“I’m just excited to be able to do this,” Pinkney said during a pause in the procession, smiling behind his Black Voters Matter mask. “It’s a beautiful feeling.”

Inside the church, Bobbie Clay’s 19-year-old son, Shon, took a short break.

He serves as vice-president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council. He’s also a student at Lake Michigan College who studies art. The smell of the water in this town he was born and raised in, he said, reminds him of the oil paints he uses sometimes.

“It’s absolutely terrible,” he said.

He and others in the community are doing their best to help, but “it is frustrating,” he acknowledged: without action from those in power, his group could only do so much.

We feel like we’re on our own … like we have to fix the problem ourselves,” Clay said. “It’s gonna take more than what we’re doing outside, for sure.”

This article was amended on 21 September 2021 to include a comment from the Whirlpool Corporation and to correct a line stating the Upton family owns Whirlpool; the firm was incorporated in 1929. It was further amended on 22 September 2021 to correct the name of the NRDC; it is the Natural (not “National”) Resources Defense Council.