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Benton Harbor declares state of emergency, ‘sound alarm’ on water crisis

Published: Oct. 19, 2021 at 7:07 PM EDT
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BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (WNDU) - The city of Benton Harbor has “sounded the alarm” on its ongoing water crisis by declaring a state of emergency Tuesday.

This comes less than a week after Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer vowed to replace all lead pipes in Benton Harbor by April 2023.

On Monday, city commissioners voted unanimously to allow Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad to take the lead on this ongoing water crisis without limitations.

Less than 24 hours later, Mayor Muhammad held a press conference this afternoon saying declaring a state of emergency is what is best for the city moving forward.

“We have a multitude of resources from various agencies at this time. I’m happy, but what we wanted to do on a local level was sound a louder alarm to say to the public, this is a crisis,” Muhammad says.

Before coming to that decision, Muhammad says he did get a chance to meet with Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer who visited Benton Harbor Tuesday morning to see and speak with residents first hand about what is actually happening on the grounds.

Muhammad says declaring an emergency will allow the city access to more state & federal funding. It also allows city leaders to better work with state officials on this issue. In addition, residents will be granted immediate access to water pickup sites throughout the city until further notice, according to Muhammad.

“This is an emergency and we are going to increase and double down on our efforts to solve the issue,” Muhammad says.

The mayor also mentioned the start of a new Community Response Team. It will be led by now Chairperson Princella Tobias, who will be meeting every week to inform residents, businesses, schools, seniors, and anyone impacted by the lead found in some of the city’s drinking water, the progress city leaders are making on the issue.

“This is where we come together in unity. We will do that and we will find resolution to this issue,” Tobias says.

When asked how much it will take to fix and replace all of the city’s lead-filled water pipes, Muhammad says nearly $30 million. But money is not the only thing the city needs.

“Moving forward, $30 million dollars...$28 million dollars coming into the city of Benton Harbor to remove, replace all lead service lines is a Mount Everest of a job. It’s going to take a all-hands-on-deck while government approach from a local level,” Muhammad says.

After the issuing of an executive directive by the governor on Oct. 14, water distribution sights have been set up across Benton Harbor for residents to receive bottled water.

Burnette Alexander, who was the first in line at a local distribution site Tuesday morning, says she hope local and state leadership can turn things around.

“We got another generation behind us and we want our sources to be just as good as sources,” Alexander says.

Tommy Driver, who has six kids between he and his wife, says life has been difficult living with limitations on water. He says trying to explain to his children why he must buy, or collect bottled water every other day has been extremely challenging.

“My daughter is like why we need all of this water? They used to drinking water. Everything we do we have to have water, wash dishes, brush your teeth. It could be difficult,” Driver says.

As for resident Linda Brown, she says she believes the increasing levels of lead in her tap water could be the reason for her recent experience with skin irritation.

“I started breaking out real bad. I went to the doctor and they said it was Eczema. Then, I went back to the doctor and they said you don’t have Eczema. I don’t know what it is,” Brown told 16 News Now while waiting her turn to receive bottled water.

Moving forward, Muhammad says the city’s aggressive approach to fix the city’s ongoing water crisis is sticking to its original goal and aims to have all led-filled waterpipe infrastructure replaced by April 2023.

City leaders, including Benton Harbor City Manager Ellis Mitchell, is expected to head to Lansing on Thursday to meet with state officials to discuss what steps come next.

“We want to get this lead out and we are going to get this lead out in the time frame that is set up,” Mitchell says.

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