BENTON HARBOR — Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad has said repeatedly over the past four years that the only thing stopping the city from immediately replacing all of its lead water pipes is money.
As long as the city was financially constrained, city officials said it would take 20 years.
That changed a year ago, October 14, 2021, after Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist II visited Benton Harbor to announce Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s plans to expedite the replacement of lead service lines.
This week, more than 95% of the city’s roughly 4,500 water pipes have been replaced or checked for lead-free, and less than 200 more need to be checked.
Even before Whitmer’s help, city officials were scrambling to secure funds to replace lead service lines.
In the spring of 2018, Benton Harbor received a $284,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. At the time, officials said the money would be used to replace water pipes in at least 200 homes with copper.
That was five months before the state declared Benton Harbor’s drinking water to contain too much lead in October 2018.
Since then, city officials have worked hard to find money wherever they can.
In the spring of 2020, commissioners approved nearly $15 million in infrastructure work, including the replacement of 150 lead water pipes. This project was funded by a mix of low-interest loans from the state and $1.4 million in loan forgiveness.
In October 2020, then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler came to Benton Harbor to announce a $5.6 million federal grant to help remove lead water pipes.
Three weeks before Gilchrist makes its 2021 announcement, major funds began pouring into the city when state lawmakers approved a $10 million budget to help Benton Harbor replace service lines in lead.
Later in October 2021, the city received $6.5 million in state grants and loans, including $3 million in federal “Booker funds,” which do not have to be repaid. These are called Booker funds because US Senator Corey Booker authored the federal legislation, which was signed into law in October 2019. They were created to help disadvantaged communities replace lead service lines.
The biggest boost came in March, when state lawmakers approved sending the city $45 million in its supplemental budget plan.
At the time, Muhammad said the money would be used to do more than just replace the city’s lead water pipes.
“There are problems at the water filtration plant,” Muhammad said. “We will be able to use some of the funds to do some of the maintenance that we weren’t able (to do) years ago. There are so many infrastructure projects that we will be able to do as well.
Helping the city didn’t stop at replacing lead water pipes. In March, the state began using $9 million to expand a program to find all sources of lead in city homes at no cost to residents.
You will find more information and how to register at https://www.michigan.gov/mileadsafe/Community-Response/benton-harbor or by calling the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services at 866-691-5323 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.