Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday ordered a "whole-of-government" response to elevated levels of lead in Benton Harbor's water and vowed to accelerate the replacement of the southwestern Michigan community's lead pipes. Her directive that state agencies ensure residents have safe tap water came about a week after her administration, in the face of criticism over state and local officials' handling of the response, urged people to use only bottled water for cooking and drinking, the AP reports. Lead can disrupt children's brain development, causing learning and behavior problems. Adults also can suffer nervous system and kidney damage.
The Democratic governor on Thursday also committed to replacing lead pipes in 18 months, accelerating what had been a five-year timeline announced more than a month ago. "This whole-of-government response will proceed with the urgency and haste this threat demands," Whitmer wrote in the order, which mandates that residents receive free or low-cost lead-related services, including health care. Benton Harbor, a predominantly Black and mostly low-income community of 9,700, is in Berrien County, 100 miles from Chicago.
For three years, measurements have detected lead levels well above 15 parts per billion, the federal threshold for taking action. After the Flint crisis, Michigan enacted the nation's strongest lead-in-water regulations. But advocacy groups recently urged the Biden administration to help—saying that city and state actions had been poorly implemented and ineffective. Benton Harbor doesn't have the money to fix the problem, the mayor said, and state and federal aid is coming slowly, per CBS. Marcus Muhammad said the city just received a $5 million US check that was approved during former President Obama's administration.
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