BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — Shortly after sunrise, on a recent Saturday, in Benton Harbor, Michigan, residents began lining up for free bottled water so they could drink and cook without fear of the high levels of lead in the city’s tap water.
Free water distribution sites are a fixture of life in the majority Black city, where almost half of the nearly 10,000 residents live below the poverty line. For three years, tests of its public water system revealed elevated levels of lead.
Waiting for bottled water is time-consuming and some residents wonder why, in a state that recently dealt with the Flint water crisis, the problem wasn’t fixed sooner.
“It’s tiresome,” said Rhonda Nelson, waiting in line at a site run by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor. “I understand what Flint was going through, I really do.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has promised to spend millions of dollars to replace the city’s lead service lines within 18 months — a blistering pace for a process that often takes decades. For now, residents have been warned not to cook, drink or make baby formula with tap water.
Residents worry what the elevated lead levels mean for their families’ health. The problem is inconvenient and stressful. Drivers line up at water distribution sites early, pulling people away from jobs and family, and water must be used carefully so it doesn’t run out. Waiting in line has consequences — idling uses gas drivers have to pay to replenish.
Lead exposure can slow cognitive development, especially in young children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and federal officials say no amount of lead in drinking water is considered safe for their consumption.