By DAVID EGGERT, Associated Press
LANSING, Mich. (AP) – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday ordered a “whole-of-government” response to high levels of lead in tap water in the town of Benton Harbor in southwest Michigan and pledged to speed up the replacement of its lead pipes. .
His directive that state agencies ensure Benton Harbor residents have clean drinking water came about a week after his administration – amid criticism of the handling of the response by national authorities and local people – urged people to use only bottled water for cooking and drinking. The crisis has parallels with Flint, who has become a symbol of the country’s decaying water infrastructure and government mismanagement.
On Thursday, the Democratic governor also pledged to replace main service lines within 18 months, accelerating the five-year deadline announced over a month ago.
“This whole-of-government response will proceed with the urgency and haste that this threat demands,” Whitmer wrote in the order, which requires residents to receive free or low-cost lead-related services, including health care. .
Benton Harbor, a predominantly black, predominantly low-income community of 9,700 residents, is located in Berrien County, 160 kilometers from Chicago.
For three years, measurements have detected lead levels well above 15 parts per billion, federal threshold for action. Following the Flint water crisis of 2014-15, Michigan implemented the country’s strictest lead-in-water regulations. But advocacy groups including the Benton Harbor Community Water Council recently urged the Biden administration to help – alleging that city and state actions, including corrosion control measures, had been wrong. implemented and ineffective.
“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.
Lead is considered harmful at all levels, and children are particularly vulnerable because it can slow growth and lead to learning and behavior problems.
Senior state officials, including Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist II and Director of Health Elizabeth Hertel, were in Benton Harbor on Thursday to announce the response plan, alongside Mayor Marcus Muhammad and black religious leaders. Gilchrist said similarly sized communities with lead exceedances need to replace 7% of lead pipes each year, which takes 14 years.
âIn the port of Benton. we strive to get there in 18 months. â¦ We are committed to doing it as quickly as possible, âhe said.
Republicans, including one who sought to run against her in 2022 – James Craig – criticized the governor. 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 for the State 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 may 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.
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