Benton Harbor Mayor On City’s Water Crisis: ‘it Will Take Resources, Money, But Most Importantly, Unity’

Marcus Muhammad, mayor of Benton Harbor in Michigan, joins Yahoo Finance’s “A Time for Change” to discuss the city’s water crisis as a result of lead contamination in the water system following what happened in Flint, and the proactive actions he is taking to protect his community.

Video Transcript

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SIBILE MARCELLUS: Welcome to "A Time for Change." I'm Sibile Marcellus here with Alexis Christoforous. Clean drinking water is considered a basic human right by the United Nations, yet an estimated 1.6 billion people don't have access to safe drinking water at home. And that's our focus today. Let's begin by taking a quick look at the scope of this problem right here in the United States.

Flint, Michigan-- the city that reminded all of us that even here in the United States, safe water cannot be taken for granted. But the residents of Flint are hardly alone. According to the US Water Alliance, more than two million Americans live without basic access to safe drinking water and sanitation. And over 130 million more are served by water systems that have violated standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Chemicals like PFAS, lead, and arsenic have been detected in thousands of systems across the country and are linked to potential long-term health problems like thyroid disease and cancer. As of November of last year, settlements for Flint residents have reached upwards of half a billion dollars, and the city has replaced almost all of the lead pipes leading to people's homes.

But across the country, there is still much work to be done. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the US needs to invest $1 trillion in the next 25 years on upgrades to create safe and equitable access, signaling that help for many at-risk Americans is still a pipe dream.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: And, of course, Flint Michigan as the cautionary tale for drinking water. But about 200 miles west, Benton Harbor, Michigan is facing its own water crisis, with water also contaminated by lead. Here to discuss is Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad. Mayor, thanks so much for being with us. We appreciate your time.

I know that your city is mostly Black. It is poverty-stricken. It's being called the next Flint. Tell us what you are doing to avoid that fate.

MARCUS MUHAMMAD: Well, the first thing that we did in terms of a three-pronged approach was to, number one, create awareness. We use the bully pulpit to point out and identify that there is a problem. Number two was to go after resources where we can address the problem, which is the third step in terms of correction and trying to remedy the issue.

We just recently received a $5.6 million grant from the EPA. Next month, we're going to receive $3 million from the state of Michigan along with another $10 million once the governor signs the current budget. And in talks with both parties, I've learned that another $10 million from the ARPA funds will also be sent to Benton Harbor, which would put us at around $28 million, and it's an estimated $30 million to remove all the lead lines, which we have approximately 5,940 at this time.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: Mayor, what led to the discovery of excessive amounts of lead in the drinking water? Did you start to see indications that certain parts of the population were getting ill? How did you start testing?

MARCUS MUHAMMAD: Well, you know, Benton Harbor, you know, I mentioned earlier on a program out of Detroit, you know, Flint is like Nile River, Benton Harbor would be like Mississippi, where both our rivers are totally different circumstances. So the city of Benton Harbor, we learned after testing, which was a new round of aggressive action by the [INAUDIBLE] to find where our cities that have this problem of high lead lines or lead line services that's contaminating the water.

So in 2018, they began to test and found out of 65 homes, 11 homes were showing results of contaminants, lead, in the water. The other 54, you know, those results were clean. The water was safe to drink. And in the next study, they found out of 35 homes, 9 was contaminated with a high lead level. The other 26 was not.

So as a result of that, they began to put things in and process and in motion. And we began to work with the state agency where we went into a consent agreement to begin the process of remedying the problem. But as it stands now, as I stated earlier, we've received approximately 17 million in resources to begin the process of addressing this issue.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: So, mayor, I know that Michigan's governor, and you've talked about it here, is proposing $20 million to replace the city's century-old lead pipes. I guess I'm wondering how likely is it that she'll be able to fully make good on her promise with a Republican-controlled legislature? And also, $20 million sounds like a lot of money-- but is the proposal enough? Is more urgent action needed for the people of Benton Harbor?

MARCUS MUHAMMAD: Well, they've already struck a deal where the Republican-led legislature working with the governor decided to put $10 million exclusively set aside for the city of Benton Harbor toward that $20 million that was proposed. The difference is $10 million is going to come from the state budget, the other $10 million will come from the ARPA funds from the Biden administration.

So the $20 million, I've been assured, $10 million up front, the other $10 million will follow. And as I stated before, we already have $5.6 million in our count as we speak, along with $3 million that's coming. So collectively, that'll put us about $2 million away from the $30 million estimated to replace all of the lead lines.

The biggest issue that we're trying to address is the timeliness. We have projected 10 years. Of course, more resources coming in allows us to shorten that time. And I met with Lieutenant Governor Gilchrist last week, and they've even proposed a quicker timeline. But you know, these are all talks that we are in.

I have a meeting with the EPA at 3:00 PM today there in town working with the city as well. So the thing that I want people to know and understand, that it's going to take a collective effort. You know, we don't want to play the blame game here in the city of Benton Harbor because we know nobody wins that game.

We want to find solutions and moving forward, bring all of the collective voices together so we can solve this problem.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: Mayor, how are residents dealing with this? Are they worried? Are they scared? Have they been boiling water for the past three years using filters? Give us a sense of what it's like for individuals on the ground.

MARCUS MUHAMMAD: Well, what I've tried to do is keep people calm. A lot of times through media and, you know, a lot of different voices, people can panic given the fact that lead is a very serious issue in the drinking water. As I stated, out of 65, 54 did not have the issue-- 11 did.

So we provided filters for free through the Berrien County Health Department. Bottled water has been given out as well. And testing is going on. So this problem did not get this way overnight. As you know, there's currently 460,000 lead service lines throughout the entire state of Michigan.

And according to some reports, we're third in the union in terms of having the most lead service lines in the ground. So Benton Harbor is being put forward and out front, fortunately or unfortunately, but hopefully the good work that we do here in the city of Benton Harbor can serve as a model for other cities not just in the state of Michigan, but throughout the country.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Mayor, I know you are aware that there are a lot of locals who believe the county, the state, the city have let them down. And I know that this month, the National Resources Defense Council actually filed a petition calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to address the crisis. First off, what's your response to that petition? And have you heard from the EPA and are they going to get involved?

MARCUS MUHAMMAD: So the EPA, as I stated before, we received a grant for $5.6 million. Those funds hit our account this June, 2021. And I have a meeting today with the EPA at 3:00 PM after this interview. So their team is in town, boots are on the ground. Residents are being educated.

Of course, you know, it's not an eventful and festival kind of issue because it's impacting lives. However, we know that this is a decades-old problem. And we just begin to address it in 2018. So you know, we're three years in. And we all know that, as the Bible said, money solveth all things.

So it's going to take resources and money, but most importantly, unity-- people working together in order to solve the problem. That's residents, that's nonprofit groups, that's local, state, federal government coming together and finding the solutions to address the problem as quickly as possible.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: All right, we're going to have to leave it there, but we'll continue to follow your story. Mayor Marcus Muhammad of Benton Harbor, Michigan, thanks so much.

Source : https://finance.yahoo.com/video/benton-harbor-mayor-city-water-183042076.html

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