Benton Harbor’s water crisis continues amid calls for lead pipe replacement

Like many across the country, the Benton Harbor water distribution system is more than 100 years old. (Adobe Stock)

As Congress continues to negotiate infrastructure and social safety-net bills, advocates for environmental justice say measures like lead-pipe replacement cannot wait.

Drinking-water systems for more than nine million homes across the country contain lead pipes, with Black, brown and low-income communities disproportionately affected.

Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, said removing lead pipes will benefit children’s health and educational outcomes, since exposure to lead is linked to kids’ difficulties learning and reading.

“It then also helps to raise values inside of communities, property values, because we know there’s a huge wealth gap that exists between Black and brown communities and white communities,” Ali explained. “There’s so many different positives that can happen.”

Last month, environmental groups filed an emergency petition with the Environmental Protection Agency to get a free and safe drinking-water supply to Benton Harbor, a majority Black community in southwestern Michigan. The city has reported extremely high lead levels in the local water for three years.

Ali noted the federal threshold for taking action is when lead is detected at a level above 15 parts per billion. In Benton Harbor, some water in homes has tested at more than 800 parts per billion. He added the water crisis, like what happened in Flint, is an example of disinvestment in a community.

“We have ‘sacrifice zones’ across our country, where people have made decisions to disinvest in certain areas,” Ali asserted. “And many times those areas are our Black and brown communities and Indigenous communities, our lower-wealth white community sometimes. So, we have a chance to change that dynamic.”

More than 60% of Americans in recent polls say they support the $1 trillion legislation now in Congress to improve roads, bridges, broadband and other infrastructure, including funding for lead-pipe replacement.

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