(AP) — Federal auditors announced an investigation Friday of how the government has dealt with lead contamination of drinking water in Benton Harbor, an impoverished, mostly Black city in southwest Michigan.
The probe by the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general follows a petition months ago for federal help from groups that accused local and state governments of dragging their feet after years of high lead readings in the city’s water.
EPA said in September it was “carefully considering” the matter and pledged additional steps this week in a letter to the groups.
Advocates said they welcomed the review.
“For years, Benton Harbor residents said the water was contaminated and for years we were ignored,” said the Rev. Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council. “An investigation into what the EPA did and did not do for this environmental justice community is long overdue.”
The watchdog office will review the agency’s performance as part of a broader effort to improve service to historically marginalized communities and keep them informed about environmental hazards, said Michael Davis, a director with the inspector general.
“The anticipated benefits of this audit are to determine if the EPA can improve the speed at which public health protections are delivered to communities facing imminent and substantial public health risks,” he said in a notice to Radhika Fox, assistant administrator for the Office of Water, and Debra Shore, head of EPA’s Chicago-based Region 5, which includes Michigan.
EPA will cooperate with the investigation, spokeswoman Taylor Gillespie said.
“No family should ever have to worry about the water coming from their tap and the Benton Harbor community is no exception,” Gillespie said. “EPA is committed to ensuring that everyone has access to clean drinking water and addressing lead in drinking water.”
The advocacy groups’ petition said measurements in recent years had repeatedly detected lead levels well above 15 parts per billion, the federal threshold for taking action.
Lead is a potent toxin that can damage the cardiovascular and reproductive systems and is particularly harmful to children, causing lower IQ and behavioral problems.
The petition said city and state actions, including control of pipe corrosion, had been ineffective. It asked EPA for emergency warnings not to drink unfiltered water, free alternative water sources and home delivery of filters with instructions on their use.
State officials said free filters had been available in Benton Harbor since 2019.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last fall called for spending $20 million there to replace nearly 6,000 service lines, most suspected of containing lead.
In the letter this week, Shore said EPA was overseeing Michigan’s pledge of free bottled water in Benton Harbor and working with state and local officials on other steps, including studies of where household lead is coming from and how well filters and corrosion controls are working.
“EPA will continue to monitor the situation in Benton Harbor and take further actions as appropriate and necessary,” Shore said.
The inspector general’s planned inquiry is “reassuring,” said Cyndi Roper, senior policy advocate with Natural Resources Defense Council.
“It’s unthinkable that after the Flint crisis, another majority Black community had to wait for years before emergency action was taken,” she said.