Energy & Environment

Michigan, local officials sued over ‘toxic lead emergency’ in city’s water

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Residents of a predominantly Black Michigan city have sued the state over allegations of lead contamination in their drinking water.

The lawsuit comes the same week as the announcement of a major settlement over the contamination of the city of Flint, Mich.

In the lawsuit, filed Wednesday, 16 residents of the city of Benton Harbor allege both city and state officials did not properly notify residents of lead contamination in service pipes dating back to at least 2018.

“[T]he state, its agencies, directors, the city of Benton Harbor, its mayor, and city managers and water plant manager treated the evidence that the water running through lead service lines in the city of Benton Harbor was poisoned with high levels of lead with deliberate indifference,” the complaint says.

The residents, it adds, “since at least 2018, were and continue to be, exposed to highly dangerous lead poisoning conditions caused by, and with deliberate indifference, prolonged by Defendants’ action to engage in a coverup and not warn the community that its drinking water supplied by Defendant City of Benton Harbor’s public water system had extreme lead toxicity.”

“Defendants, all of them, have not remediated these dangers or harms, notwithstanding their knowledge, since 2018, that the amount of lead in the water was increasing with each testing  period from 2018 to 2021,” the complaint reads.

Named defendants in the suit include Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), Mayor Marcus Muhammad (D), and the state Department of Health and Human Services as well as its director Elizabeth Hertel and former director Robert Gordon. President Biden in August nominated Gordon to serve as assistant secretary for financial resources in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Berrien County officials in October asked Benton Harbor residents to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth and mixing infant formula to avoid lead contamination.

In a statement on Friday, a Whitmer spokesperson defended the state response.

“Since the first lead exceedance was detected in 2018, the state of Michigan has been on the ground in Benton Harbor working with local partners on a solution to address the aging infrastructure,” the spokesperson said.

However, plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege that an October declaration by Whitmer of a state of emergency was their first public notice of the contamination.

The Hill has reached out to Whitmer’s office, the state Department of Health and Human Services and the city of Benton Harbor for comment.

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