Energy & Environment

EPA watchdog to probe agency response to Benton Harbor lead contamination

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The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Inspector General will investigate the federal response to reports of lead contamination in a predominantly Black Michigan city’s water supply.

In a notice Friday, the EPA’s inspector general announced an audit into the agency’s handling of reports of contamination in Benton Harbor, which is already the subject of a lawsuit against the city and state from 16 residents.

“The OIG’s objective is to determine the extent to which the EPA followed its 2016 elevation policy memorandum … in responding to evidence of drinking water lead contamination in the community water system for the City of Benton Harbor, Michigan,” it said in a statement.

“We plan to conduct work in Region 5 and in the Office of Water. Applicable generally accepted government auditing standards will be used in conducting our audit. 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 risk.”

The notice requests all EPA guidance and training documents on elevation policy provided to EPA staff in the region, as well as any complaints about Benton Harbor received through the EPA’s Drinking Water Hotline, along with any information about how they were resolved.

The announcement follows the 2021 lawsuit, in which Benton Harbor residents alleged that officials neglected to properly inform them of contamination in service pipes dating back to at least 2018.

Residents “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,” the lawsuit stated.

“No family should ever have to worry about the water coming from their tap and the Benton Harbor community is no exception,” an EPA spokesperson told The Hill in a statement. “EPA is committed to ensuring that everyone has access to clean drinking water and addressing lead in drinking water. We always cooperate fully with the Inspector General and we look forward to their review.”

Updated 4:27 p.m.

Tags Benton Harbor Drinking water quality in the United States lead contamination Michigan Water supply and sanitation in the United States

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