Michigan is taking action on the lead crisis. Where’s the EPA?

More than a month after residents of the town of Benton Harbor called on the EPA to take emergency action to rid them of contaminated drinking water, the state – not the federal government – is taking the initiative and intensifies its response.

The EPA’s wait-and-see approach, critics say, seems at odds with President Biden’s repeated calls for urgent action to remove all lead water pipes in the country as part of an infrastructure package that goes through Congress.

Those calling for federal action say they are encouraged by the steps Michigan officials took yesterday to deal with the crisis. As for the EPA, they say the federal agency has yet to approve their request for emergency action, a position they say matches the agency’s response seven years ago when a lead crisis erupted in Flint, Michigan.

“The EPA seems to be following the same playbook as Flint; the same type of petition was filed during the water crisis in Flint,” said Elin Betanzo, a former EPA official who played a central role in the discovery of contamination crises in both Benton Harbor and Flint. “Really, the EPA should have the ability to intervene immediately. That’s why the Safe Drinking Water Act contains this provision, to have an emergency petition, because it’s an emergency.”

“To sit on it and wait for that is disappointing,” added Betanzo.

For its part, the EPA said it was working closely with state and local authorities to support a rapid and comprehensive response, and was closely monitoring what was happening in Benton Harbor, a predominantly black community and primarily in low income of 9,700 people in Berrien County, 100 miles northeast. from Chicago.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (R) yesterday ordered a “whole-of-government” response to elevated levels of lead in tap water in southwest Michigan town and pledged to speed up replacement of its lead pipes . The directive, which ordered state agencies to ensure town residents have clean drinking water, came after Whitmer’s administration was criticized for its handling of the crisis, including urging people to use only bottled water for cooking and drinking. The governor also pledged to replace lead service lines within 18 months, speeding up what had been a five-year schedule announced over a month ago.

Benton Harbor called on the EPA to take emergency action earlier this year. For three years, measurements have detected lead levels well above 15 parts per billion, the federal threshold for action (Green wire, September 10). Lead is a toxic metal harmful to human health, even at low levels of exposure, according to the EPA. Lead can have irreversible and permanent health effects, especially in children, including decreased IQ, concentration and academic achievement.

In the aftermath of the Flint water crisis, Michigan implemented the country’s strictest regulations on lead in water. But advocacy groups including the Benton Harbor Community Water Council have urged the Biden administration to help – alleging that city and state actions, including corrosion control measures, were misplaced. implemented and ineffective.

EPA spokesperson Taylor Gillespie said the agency was “actively engaged in the response” at Benton Harbor to protect residents from lead in the water, and that the EPA’s involvement had was “instrumental in carrying out actions aimed at guaranteeing the safety and health of persons”. The EPA, she said, is in daily communication with Michigan and provides support and oversight of state actions.

“The EPA shares Governor Whitmer’s commitment to ensuring that residents of Benton Harbor receive clear and up-to-date information on the harmful effects of lead exposure in drinking water, efforts to replace service lines lead and lead data results for their community, ”Gillespie said.

“The EPA is also working with the state to support its supply of bottled water and to ensure that residents of Benton Harbor have the information they need about the distribution and access to bottled water,” she continued. “We are also working with agencies in the State of Michigan, the City of Benton Harbor and the drinking water system on long-term solutions and assistance calls for 100% replacement of lead service lines. in Benton Harbor. “

Others applauded the state’s response. “This is what we expected – a ‘everyone on deck’ approach to solving the lead contamination crisis at Benton Harbor,” said Reverend Edward Pinkney, chairman of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, in a statement. written statement.

Betanzo, who founded the consultancy firm Safe Water Engineering LLC and helped uncover the extent of lead contamination in Benton Harbor and Flint, said she was encouraged by the state’s actions and that ‘she and other advocates had received “no response” before filing the petition. with the EPA. Behind the scenes, Betanzo said, the EPA is investigating what is really going on on the ground in Benton Harbor, which is putting pressure on state officials.

“Since we filed the petition, the pressure from the EPA and the visibility of it has really pushed the state to respond, so in this way the petition is making a lot of headway,” she said. . “I’m not giving up on the EPA, they could still step in.”

“Responsibility front”

While the most immediate priority is making sure Benton Harbor has the clean water it needs and removing lead pipes, Betanzo said there was a question about how the city found herself in the position of having contaminated water for at least three years.

“On the accountability front, the EPA has a role in overseeing Michigan’s drinking water program and looking to see if they are really doing their job and complying with the requirements,” she said.

Michigan officials including Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, Director of Health Elizabeth Hertel and Mayor Marcus Muhammad were in Benton Harbor yesterday alongside community and Black Church leaders to announce their plan to go forward. Gilchrist said similarly sized communities with lead overshoots need to replace 7 percent of lead pipes each year, which takes 14 years.

“At Benton Harbor, we strive to get there in 18 months. … We are committed to doing it as quickly as possible, ”said Gilchrist.

Republicans, including James Craig, who is seeking to run against the governor in 2022, have criticized Whitmer. They asked why she did not attend the press conference and accused her of waiting too long to act.

“The inaction of Whitmer and his administration to address this issue is another failed promise to add to the growing list, and it has catastrophic implications for the people of Benton Harbor,” said Gustavo Portela, spokesperson of the state’s GOP.

Whitmer’s directive states that residents must continue to have access to free bottled water indefinitely. State officials should provide residents with clear and up-to-date information on the harmful effects of lead exposure, service line replacement, and lead data results.

Households with Medicaid-eligible children or pregnant women can benefit from a free survey and reduced risk from lead in the home.

Whitmer’s predecessor Republican Rick Snyder faces criminal charges for the crisis in Flint, where directors he appointed changed the water source to save money and the town followed the wrong advice to state regulators not to apply anti-corrosive treatments.

“If you are serious you can do it”

Lack of funding, research and regulatory strength are just a few of the challenges that health advocates and small communities face as they fight to remove contaminated lead pipes.

This highlights a sprawling infrastructure bill going through Congress that contains tens of billions of dollars to eliminate lead.

Advocates are asking Biden to make sure $ 45 billion is included to cut all major service lines across the country. Members of the House heeded that call and included $ 30 billion for the effort in a reconciliation package, which would be on top of the $ 15 billion already included in the infrastructure bill to achieve Biden’s goal (PM E&E News, September 9).

Betanzo said it was also a matter of regulatory powers and reiterated its calls for firm requirements in the EPA’s upcoming lead and copper rule for the removal of lead pipelines. Currently, that language is missing from a rule the EPA is developing, the first update to federal drinking water standards in nearly 30 years (Green wire, August 24).

Betanzo pointed out that when Newark, NJ, faced a lead crisis, the city cut more than 20,000 lead service lines in two years.

“We know if you’re serious you can do it, and Benton Harbor is a lot smaller where the maximum number of lead service lines is 6,000,” she said. “It is certainly doable in 18 months.”

The Associated Press contributed.

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