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Benton Harbor Michigan Water Crisis, USA

Lead contamination of water wreaks greater havoc on Benton Harbor than Flint, Michigan. Same state, smaller town, bigger problem.


Though the Flint Water Crisis is a better-known case of lead contamination in city water, similar problems exist a few hours to the west in Benton Harbor, Michigan. The contamination in Benton Harbor was discovered in 2018, only a few years after Flint became a household name. This water crisis stems from degraded lead pipe infrastructure and a lack of proper management from officials in Benton Harbor, a predominately black town. At this point in time, the residents of Flint, Michigan have received $626 million to settle their lawsuits against the city for lead exposure that occurred from 2014 to 2015 [6].

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Benton Harbor Michigan Water Crisis, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Michigan
Location of conflict:Benton Harbor
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Other industries
Specific commodities:Lead
Chemical products
Industrial waste
Project Details and Actors
Project details

The problem of lead contamination of water was discovered in 2018 in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Due to the lack of infrastructure and declining population of Benton Harbor, the water was only tested for lead every three years. When it was finally tested by a resident in 2018, results came back with 300 parts per billion (ppb) of lead. In 2019, the town’s water was tested, and the general level of lead was 22 ppb. In 2020, the town’s water was tested again, and the general level of lead increased to 24 ppb. In 2021, the water was tested a third time, and the general level of lead grew to 33 ppb, which is deadly. The supposed reason for this increase was the lack of regulation and constant pushback of deadlines on water treatment.

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Project area:1,200
Level of Investment for the conflictive project18,600,000
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:9,700
Start of the conflict:2018
Relevant government actors:Environmental Protection Agency / Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy / Michigan Governor Whitmer / Berrien County Health Department
International and Finance InstitutionsUnited States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) from United States of America
Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (EPA) from United States of America - State of Michigan Fund
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) from United States of America - Michigan Government Organization
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Benton Harbor Community Water Council / Natural Resources Defense Council / Great Lakes Environmental Law Center / Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency / Boys and Girls Club
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Industrial workers
Informal workers
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Local scientists/professionals
Religious groups
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Soil contamination, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Potential: Malnutrition, Deaths, Other Health impacts
Other Health impactsKidney and liver problems, delay in physical development in infants and children, learning deficits, and problems during pregnancy.
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood
Potential: Increase in violence and crime, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights
Project StatusUnder construction
Conflict outcome / response:Institutional changes
Strengthening of participation
Proposal and development of alternatives:The current goal of the project is to replace all the contaminated lines in Benton Harbor. The only alternative at the moment is passing out bottled water to the people. There is no other alternative to fixing the problem. The lead has to be removed.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:This case is in the early stages of being resolved. Mobilization through a primary grassroots organization as well as other local and national government organizations has occurred, but a final solution has not yet been attained nor have the environmental justice aspects been fully addressed.
Sources & Materials
Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Petition for Emergency Action under the Safe Drinking Water Act, 42 U.S.C
[click to view]

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[1] EPA, 2021. Hazard Standards and Clearance Levels for Lead in Paint, Dust and Soil (TSCA Sections 402 and 403).
[click to view]

[2] Kelly House and Johnathan Oosting. November 5th, 2021. Docs: Benton Harbor water response marked by delays, poor messaging.
[click to view]

[3] Garret Ellison. November 10, 2021. ‘Benton Harbor is not Flint.’ Emails show fight between city water chief, state regulators.
[click to view]

[4] Leonard N. Fleming. September 9 2021. Emergency petition filed with EPA over Benton Harbor drinking water lead levels.
[click to view]

[5] David Horak. November 12 2021. Lawsuit over Benton Harbor water seeks class-action status.
[click to view]

[6] Ed White. November 10 2021. Judge approves $626 million settlement in Flint water litigation filed by residents.
[click to view]

[7] Garret Ellison. October 7, 2021. Benton Harbor residents urged to use bottled water amid lead crisis
[click to view]

[8]Timothy L. O’Brien. November 17, 2021. Lead-Tainted Water Is America’s Worst Infrastructure Failure
[click to view]

[9] City of Benton Harbor, Benton harbor LSLR Status Dashboard. Accessed October 22, 2022
[click to view]

[10] Lieff CaBraser, Attorneys at Law. May 2022. Benton Harbor, MI Poisoned Water Class Action Litigation
[click to view]

[11] Eric Lutz and Erin McCormick. September 21, 2021. "A Black town’s water is more poisoned than Flint’s. In a white town nearby, it’s clean". The Guardian.
[click to view]

Benton Harbor Community Water Council
[click to view]

Black Autonomy Network Community Organization
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Democracy Now Interview w/ Rev. Pinkney about Benton Harbor Water Crisis
[click to view]

ABC News Highlights the Benton Harbor Water Crisis
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Skidmore College: Katherine Almquist, [email protected]; Emme Tissue, [email protected]; Lowery Parker, [email protected]
Last update29/11/2022
Conflict ID:5731
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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