Lead Pipes and the Water Crisis in Benton Harbor, MI
Updated: Jul 15
Reverend Edward Pinkney is with the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, which has been working to help the Benton Harbor, MI community address the problem of dangerous lead levels in its tap water. Rev. Pinkney also appeared recently on the PBS News Hour to talk about the water contamination. The following is an abbreviated version of the interview Rev. Pinkney did for the Great Lakes Spirituality Project, lightly edited for length and clarity. For the full interview, please see the video below.
Dan: Thank you very much for talking with me today, Reverend Pinkney.
Rev. Pinkney: Thank you, Dan Robinson, for having me, because I think this is just a tremendous opportunity for people to understand that water is life, and we need clean water.
Photo by Dan Robinson
Dan: For those that aren’t familiar with the situation in Benton Harbor, can you describe what's happening there?
Rev. Pinkney: One of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council members’ daughter came in from Texas. She came in and she wanted to run some bathwater. And in the process of running the bathwater, she discovered that the water was gold, yellow, you know, and it should not be yellow. And she asked her mom (her mom is 70 years old) “How come the water is this color? And she said it’s been like that over six months. And (the daughter said) “You've been bathing in water like this?” And she said, “Yeah, they never told me that the water was bad or anything.”
So, the daughter contacted me. I told her to get two jugs of water and take it and give it to the mayor of Benton Harbor so he can see and have it tested. That was the whole game plan. She took it, gave it to him, and he wouldn't even look at it. He left out of the chambers without even looking at the water. He didn't want to touch it. He didn't want to do nothing. So she called me. I told her to bring it to me, and I'll send it out to the University of Michigan biological lab and have it tested. And when we did that it came back with over 300 parts per billion of lead in the jugs that she had. So, right there, we knew we had a problem, a major problem.
During the process of that, we went to the supervisor of the water plant and was talking to him. I wanted to get in there and look around and take notes, if I could witness some of the problems at the plant. But during the process of doing that (this guy's name is Mike O'Malley) … he asked me to help him do the sampling. He wanted the Benton Harbor Community Water Council to help him because he had never completed 60 samples, and it takes 60 samples to get this thing done. If you don't get 60 samples, you’ll just be tagged or labeled out of compliance. Normally when you're out of compliance you get fined, but they never fined Benton Harbor, for reasons unknown.
So, here's what we did. We helped them get 60 samples. It came back 22 parts per billion of lead on an average of the 60. That was way too high. 15 is the action level. Anything over 15 there's gotta be some actions done with it. And that's where all this came about.
In the first year, we did it with Michael O’Malley. The second year, we did it with Michael O’Malley. They came out 24 parts (per billion). But here’s where the problem lies. The city government, the mayor, and everybody else, they knew that the water was bad, but did not tell the community. See, that was the issue. We're telling the community that the water is bad. But they have more validity, if they say the water is bad, because that's government.
So, we're still saying the water is bad, after the first year, after the second year. After the third year, it came back 24 parts per billion, but it would have been higher than that. We went out and we got 63 samples. It was at 33 parts per billion. That was a major problem. So they ordered me to go out and get 14 more (samples) to bring that down, the average down more than anything else, which is cheating. I didn't know that though, at that time, until after they got back. And then they informed me that it’s down the 24. I said that's what you was doing, trying to get me to lower this down?
So then, this is what we did. We had a roundtable with the EPA. And we talked. It went well. It's just like you and I having a conversation now, more or less. And we told them what we wanted. Two weeks later, I wrote them a letter, you know, finding out what we're going to do and how we’re going to start fixing this problem in Benton Harbor. (The EPA contact person) wrote me a letter saying that they have done everything they can do to help the city of Benton Harbor. I didn't like that. So I sat down with the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, and I told them that we had to do something.
We voted to file a petition with the EPA to get things stirred up. And when we filed that petition with the EPA, it got everybody moving. They immediately at that time figure that we was for real about what we was saying, because they had no idea that we was going to file it.
But right before we filed it, the governor got wind of it, and she promised to give the city of Benton Harbor $20 million, which I knew was going to be difficult because we have what we call a Republican Senate and a Republican House, and they wouldn't give her a major victory like that. But she did get 10 from them, so I'm not mad at all about the ten.
That got us moving, all that got us moving. So now, we’re not satisfied. We want (Governor Whitmer) to supply bottled water to the community, and at first, it was a fight. She didn't want to do that. She wanted to put water filters into the community. And we said, well, we need to have a study just to make sure - just to make sure - that the water filters will be able to filter out the amount of lead that’s in the water in Benton Harbor. First, they balked about it, but then they realized that was the proper thing to do. So now, they’re supplying bottled water.
Just the other day, she made the announcement that they’re going to have all the pipes replaced in 18 months. At first we said five years, but after we got more information, we said it should be done between six and 12 months. But I can deal with 18. Newark, New Jersey had 20,000 lead pipes and they got it done in less than two years. Benton Harbor only has 6,000 lead pipes. So they had three times more than what we had. And it seemed like we should be able to get it done between six and 12 months. That's what I'm thinking.
So that's where we are at here. We're making sure that we're doing what needs to be done for the people. See, it’s all about the people You cannot live without clean water.
Rev. Pinkney: Yes. After the Benton Harbor Community Water Council voted to go forward with this, we sat down with them and decided how we're going to do it, and also the language, which was so important. The language is very, very important. If you don't get the language, right, it might confuse a lot of people.
Dan: Tell me about the Benton Harbor Community Water Council
Rev. Pinkney: It's a group of residents from Benton Harbor. That's who they are. It’s strictly a group of people from Benton Harbor.
Dan: I've seen this pointed out in news reports and in conversations, but my understanding is that Benton Harbor is 85% black and 5%, Hispanic. So it's predominantly a black community. Do you think that that had anything to do with how this was handled?
Rev. Pinkney: Oh, absolutely. It's a major reason. You know, imagine this and think about this. You got a white lady with a baby in her arms, doing the interview on TV, and she's crying, telling the world that this lead is killing and affecting her baby. They would have the army down here, the Pentagon. They would have the Army Corps. They would have FEMA down here, Joe Biden would be here, you know, and everybody, because it's a white community. But by being a black community, they figure like this. “What’s a little lead? We're not gonna worry about the city of Benton Harbor, because it costs too much to fix it.” This is the problem. Environmental racism is real and it’s alive. And Benton Harbor is a perfect example of that.
Dan: What does your faith tell you about this situation? Does it color how you look at this?
Rev. Pinkney: Oh, absolutely. My faith tells me that faith without works is dead. Ask and it shall be given to you. Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door will be open. We're knocking, We're knocking to knock that door open, if they don't open it. I believe there's never ever a change without a conflict. Never. They're not just going to go out here and do the right thing because you ask them. If they thought for one moment, you couldn’t make changes, they won't do anything. That's their history, you know, and when we talk about history, that's what we're saying. That's what they’re doing. They will care less.
They are shocked that we were able to file that petition. They’re shocked. It blew their mind away because they said no way possible. Benton Harbor, the people have been mis-educated. There's nobody here who's qualified to take this thing to another level. But the Benton Harbor Community Water Council did it. It rocked their world.
Dan: What is the source of water for Benton Harbor? Where do you get your water?
Rev. Pinkney: Lake Michigan,
Dan: So it's pulled in directly from the Lake?
Rev. Pinkney: Directly from the Great Lakes, I tell you, we're surrounded by water, and yet we can't have water to drink. Nobody should be subjected to something like this. We're surrounded by water, and yet and still we do not have any water, clean water, safe water to drink for ourselves, our children, or anybody else. And here's the thing. It was like, nobody cared. I mean, if you get 22 parts per billion of water the first year, that should have told somebody something. But not in this case. We had two years where we had 24 parts per billion, but here's what they tried to do. The people inside the water plant tried to water this down in 2021 by going out and getting more samples so the average would be lower.
I'm going to be honest with you, I did not know that was their intention until after we had completed it, sent it to the lab and got it back. When we got to 63 (samples) it was at 33 parts per billion. 33 parts per billion will kill anybody.
Dan: What's next? Where does the effort go from here?
Rev. Pinkney: Well, first of all, let's straighten this mess out. Then let's do that survey on the water filter, Make sure that the filter will be able to handle the water, the lead that's in the water. And number three, let's make sure that we hold (Gov. Whitmer to) 18 months. I don't have a problem with 18 months, but it could be done in six to 12 months. Remember, Newark, New Jersey had 20,000 lead pipes, and they were done in less than 18 months. So I don't see 18 months being a problem with getting this job done.
Dan: Rev. Pinkney, thank you so much for making the time to talk today and telling the story of what's happening in Benton Harbor right now.
Rev. Pinkney: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Dan Robinson, I really appreciate this.