Michigan continues work to address public health impact of water crisis


James Sklar


Residents of Flint and Benton Harbor, Michigan, have all dealt with contaminated water supply over the years, and they are still having issues with lead and the repercussions of failing infrastructure. Recently, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) has laid out information for residents of Flint and Brenton Harbor on the improvements made and next steps.  


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In Benton Harbor, about 99.4% of lead service lines have been replaced. However, MDHHS is urging residents to take additional steps to eliminate sources of lead in their homes. Steps MDHHS have proposed are to keep using bottled water and hold off using water in their houses until homes have been cleared for use by MDHHS, scheduling free home lead inspections and abatement services, fixing plumbing in impacted residents’ homes, and flushing plumbing and cleaning aerators in the home. 

MDHHS is providing all housing units on Benton Harbor’s water supply with free lead filters, home lead services, bottled water, and water delivery for homebound residents.

In Flint, the department has yet to fully finish its Lead Service Line Replacement project. However, a recently released water report from MDHHS showed that Flint has tested below action levels for both lead and copper during 13 consecutive monitoring periods.

“The data shows that Flint’s investment of roughly $100 million in new copper service lines and millions of dollars in additional water infrastructure have clearly improved water quality for city residents,” said Eric Oswald, director of EGLE’s Drinking Water and Environment Health Division. “The data also underscores the need to continue engaging with the public on opportunities to replace aging interior plumbing, flushing stagnant water every morning, and other strategies to reduce their potential exposures to lead in their homes.”

So far, funding for Flint and residents comes from a variety of sources, which include a Michigan court-ordered payment of $600 million to victims of the Flint Water Crisis, $350 million to the Flint community to replace pipes and provide bottled water, and $100 million from the federal government for drinking water infrastructure upgrades. 

However, even with all this funding and investment, trust between the residents and the government has significantly decreased, and the residents are worried that there are still physical and behavioral health problems for developing children.

Recently, Shannon Marquez, dean of global engagement and professor of water, sanitation, and hygiene at Columbia University, spoke with Jon Yang on PBS Newshour regarding contaminated water supplies in Michigan.

Marquez reported that the number one driver of contaminated water supply is aging infrastructure and lack of repairs because states and local governments have been juggling funding priorities. Additionally, Marquez acknowledged that climate change, extreme weather events, and flooding are increasingly affecting water systems.

Marquez said this continued trend stems from environmental racism where communities of color are the ones most affected from historical disinvestment. Michigan cities have suffered from this—most noticeably Flint and Benton Harbor, which are 60% Black and 80% Black, respectively. Marquez reported that it’s going to cost nearly $480 billion over the next 20 years to invest in the US’s water infrastructure.

There are continued efforts at the state and federal level to address Michigan’s water infrastructure. At the state level, lawmakers are still introducing legislation to help children, families, and the community screen for lead poisoning. 

At the federal level, President Biden’s Infrastructure law provided Michigan with approximately $213 million in fiscal year 2022 to provide clean and safe water, of which $69 million is dedicated to lead pipe and service line replacement and $44 million for safe drinking water investments that can also support lead pipe replacement. Additionally, last week, the Biden-⁠Harris Administration announced new actions and progress to protect communities from lead pipes and paint.