Health risks from high levels of lead in drinking water in a poor, majority black Michigan town were not quickly brought to the attention of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials , according to a report released Thursday.
The EPA’s Office of Inspector General said staff monitoring the state’s response to lead levels and compliance at Benton Harbor failed to “elevate” the issue of health risks. health of city residents, in accordance with an EPA policy that encourages staff to do so. The issues met several EPA elevating policy criteria, including the appearance of a substantial threat to public health and the fact that normal enforcement and compliance tools appeared unlikely to succeed in the short term, indicates the report.
In October 2018, the state notified the Benton Harbor Water System that it had exceeded 15 parts per billion in water samples — the federal threshold for taking action.
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These levels have remained high. In 2021, activists intensified their push for more action, and state leaders responded as the main issue captured national attention. State officials promised to quickly remove lead pipes from the city and asked residents to switch to bottled water for basic needs like cooking and drinking.
Lead, which can seep from aging pipes into residential drinking water via faucets, is a potent toxin that can damage the cardiovascular and reproductive systems. It is particularly harmful to children, as it causes low IQ and behavioral problems.
The 2016 EPA policy on increasing critical public health issues followed the lead-tainted water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Flint, which reported to state-appointed managers, used the Flint River for its water in 2014 and 2015, but the water was not treated the same as water previously supplied by a supplier in the area of Detroit. As a result, the lead seeped through the entire piping system.
Benton Harbor is about 100 miles northeast of Chicago. Federal auditors announced an investigation in February 2022 into the government’s handling of lead contamination in Benton Harbor’s drinking water. The investigation followed a petition asking for help from the federal government from groups that accused local and state governments of dragging their feet.
“Because the elevation policy was not used, the senior Office of the Administrator team did not have the opportunity to assess and recommend actions to resolve the elevated lead levels. in the Benton Harbor water system,” the report said.
EPA disagreed with a recommendation that it should determine how the policy can be more effective, but agreed to develop and implement a strategy to help staff understand when and how to use politics.
Cyndi Roper, senior policy advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, called Benton Harbor’s response “another abject failure by the EPA to protect an environmental justice community.”
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“The EPA must do better to end the public health disaster of lead-contaminated drinking water, starting with issuing and enforcing a new federal lead and copper rule that will finally solve the lead crisis. lead, so that no other community is poisoned by lead tap water,” Roper said in a statement Thursday.
About 87% of Benton Harbor’s approximately 9,100 residents are black. The city’s median household income was about $24,000 in 2021, according to the U.S. Census.
Much of the city’s water system is around 100 years old. The city’s water system has added anti-corrosion chemicals to prevent lead from entering drinking water.
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Lead levels eventually fell below the action level of 15 parts per billion in December 2021. Millions of dollars in state and federal funds were used to replace thousands of lead service lines. After about a year – an incredibly short time to replace lead pipes in any city – authorities announced that nearly all lead pipes in Benton Harbor had been replaced.