Since 2018, the lakeside community of Benton Harbor, Michigan, has been embroiled in a struggle for the right to clean drinking water. With a nearly 90% African American population hovering around 10,000, residents of Benton Harbor say they feel like they’ve been abandoned by the state after tap water samples returned lead levels well above the national standard for remedial action of 15 parts per million.
Grassroots activists have raised the issue of dangerously high lead levels to various state and federal government agencies for years, to no avail. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer only took things seriously in Benton Harbor when national media attention occurred and lawsuits were filed that could hurt her reelection campaign.
In Benton Harbor, 45% of the population lives below the poverty line. The residents have very restricted access to quality health care, if any, and are subjected to a number of factors that can intensify the effects of lead exposure. Lead is particularly harmful to children. Symptoms from lead exposure include anemia, learning and behavioral problems, lowered IQ and attention span, and other health dangers. Most experts agree than any level of lead in the drinking water can create these and other long-term effects on children who are exposed. In adults, lead poisoning from toxic drinking water manifests most commonly as a form of kidney, heart or liver disease.
Tests show dangerously high lead levels
Reverend Edward Pinkney is a longtime activist in Benton Harbor and founder of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council. The group, along with water activists from throughout Michigan, brought the lead water crisis in the city to light through a complaint they filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Rev. Pinkney has been organizing and speaking out on the crisis, as well as distributing bottled water to Benton Harbor residents over the past couple of years to ensure the community has some access to safe drinking water.
Rev. Pinkney described the struggle for safe drinking water to Liberation News, “It all started with my good friend Emma Kinnard. Her daughter came back from Texas, and when she came in and turned on the bath the water came out golden. She went to the kitchen to test the faucet water and it came out the same way.”
Kinnard collected two quarts of the water and took it to the city of Benton Harbor to be tested, only to be turned away after the city council and Mayor Marcus Mohammed refused her demand. “I think it was because he knew the water was bad,” said Pinkney.
After Kinnard sent the water sample to the University of Michigan, the test returned a number of 300 parts per billion of lead for that particular sample, far surpassing the national action level of 15 parts per billion.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy is required to make a report that would set in motion a series of measures to rid the water supply of contamination, but no such measures were taken. Pinkney said residents even received contradictory advice from city officials who told them Benton Harbor is “delivering clean water right to the tap and you should have no problem drinking it.”
Despite local pressure, and despite state and federal agencies being informed of the lead contamination, Benton Harbor actually reported an increase in the average water lead count over the following three years, at one point reaching an average of 33 parts per billion. That is more than double the federal action level and significantly more than the levels found in Flint, Michigan, which had received international attention in previous years for its residents being exposed to contaminated water.
‘They didn’t know we were fighters’
“But they didn’t know we were fighters,” said Rev. Pinkney. “They didn’t know the Black community would stand up and fight a government that they knew was doing wrong.”
Since spearheading the effort to expose the toxic water to which Benton Harbor residents are being exposed, Rev. Pinkney has been hounded by the state for blowing the whistle on the dirty water. The government has attempted media smear campaigns, claimed that he tampered with the water test results and even alleged that Rev. Pinkney had been going out of state to South Bend, Indiana, to sell the bottled water provided by the state.
Rev. Pinkney is a former political prisoner. As an elder in his 60s, he was arrested, falsely convicted and served two-and-a-half years in a state prison for “tampering with a petition” in an attempt to recall the mayor of Benton Harbor. The case was eventually overturned by the Michigan Supreme Court.
Rev. Pinkney is asking progressive activists to join him at an “Occupy the PGA” demonstration on May 28, beginning at 11:00 a.m., at 275 Pipestone Street in Benton Harbor. The demonstration is demanding clean water, return of public lands and jobs, jobs, jobs. It will march on the Harbor Shores Golf Club which is hosting the Senior Professional Golf Association tournament taking place on that date, a major tournament in which the eyes of the country will be on Benton Harbor.
The entire Harbor Shores Development is an attempt to seize Benton Harbor’s property on Lake Michigan from the city’s Black community and turn it over to white, rich gentrifiers. The Harbor Shores Development is funded with tax captures that rob property tax dollars to fund the development, while Benton Harbor’s only high school has been shut down.
For more information on the Occupy the PGA demonstration and the ongoing water struggle in Benton Harbor, go to https://bhcwc.org/.
Feature photo: Reverend Edward Pinkney speaks out at a demonstration against gentrification in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Family photo, used with permission.