Benton Harbor Water Crisis: free home lead inspections

NOW: Benton Harbor Water Crisis: free home lead inspections

The Benton Harbor Water Crisis is not over just yet.

In fact, it's simply moving on to another phase of removing lead contamination from inside residents' homes. The project to remove all the old underground lead water lines is now 99.4% complete and it came in on time and under budget.

The drinking water lead levels that peaked at 32 parts per billion in December of 2019, more than twice the EPA's federal action level of 15 parts per billion, has been dropping steadily and is now down to 9 parts per billion this past December.

But the push to remove all toxic lead from people's homes isn't over just yet.

That's why Princella Tobias and Nicholas Gunn, part of a new non-profit called Benton Harbor Team Solutions, are out going door-to-door spreading the word one house at a time about the next phase in the ongoing effort to end the city's water crisis.

"The state of Michigan and the city of Benton Harbor, we are inspecting the inside of your home your windows, your doors, your plumbing, and if they detect lead in your home, they will replace it free of charge," Tobias told one homeowner after knocking on her front door.

More than 4,400 underground water service lines have been dug up, inspected and replaced to reduce the widespread lead contamination in the city's drinking water but the work doesn't stop there. The state and city are now targeting lead inside people's homes too.

"Water is important, it is essential," said Tobias, "Having a lead in your pipes that’s making your water undrinkable and then to be able to come with a solution. That’s what Benton Harbor Team Solutions is about. We are about finding solutions for this community."

Cassandra Collins and her husband Darrell were stunned when they found out they could get free lead inspections from the state and then thousands of dollars in repairs done to remove any sources of lead from their home---at no cost to them.

"Initially, I thought it was too good to be true," said Cassandra Collins, "They’re not going to come in and just fix everything for free, but it literally is just that!"

And the same thing is happening at homes across the city. Contractors replacing windows, siding, and older interior plumbing fixtures that still contain lead—a known toxin that can cause brain damage, learning and behavior issues -- especially in kids.

"Now we moved to the next phase where they’re doing the plumbing so they’re coming in starting this Friday to replace all the plumbing inside of the house as well as new water heater, faucets and everything so we’re definitely blessed," said Cassandra Collins.

The very grateful Collins family believes all that work --inside and out--would have cost them well over $20,000.

"We had an estimate come out and at that time it was well over $15,000 for windows and they replaced all my windows including my side door and then did some painting in the house where there was painting in the house from lead chips" and it did not cost them a dime.

"For owner occupied properties they are completely free of charge! I know it seems too good to be true but they are," said Carin Speidel, Lead Services Manager at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Speidel's team put together a new roadmap---laying out the steps needed for people to sign up, get inspected and have all the lead removed from their houses. Even if you rent, you still qualify and it won't cost you anything either.

Speidel says, "The landlord may have to pay a cost share again on the lead abatement part which is the windows the doors the things that we would actually be doing to the house, there might be a cost share there, but the plumbing work for rentals and landlords is 100% free"

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad recently returned from a "Get the Lead Out" summit at the White House in Washington, DC where the Biden administration touted $350 billion in federal American Rescue Plan funds that can be used for similar lead abatement efforts in cities struggling with the same hidden hazard across the country.

"Benton Harbor was there as an example of success and how this can be done in Godspeed where we completed 99.4% in less than a year and under budget, said Mayor Muhammad, "If anybody looks at what happened in Benton Harbor, it was people of all ethnicities different political parties, different philosophies coming together to say there’s a problem here and we’re going to work together to solve it and when we have unity, there’s nothing, Brian, we can’t accomplish.”

Right now everyone in Benton Harbor is still being urged to use bottled water for cooking, drinking and making baby formula and the free faucet filters handed out by the Berrien County Health Department were determined to be effective by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency---but getting every single home checked out, inside, is the next challenge.

"It’s critically important the effects of lead as we know is a neurotoxin which is permanent. It affects you for the rest of your life so to take that time to have someone come in and take the time to sign off to give access is worth it because the impact of lead is lifelong," said Muhammad.

Princella Tobias, with Benton Harbor Team Solutions, vows to keep knocking on doors until crews have helped every local family get their homes inspected.

"I think about the hope, the hope that all of this is giving our residents, the hope that we shall overcome, the hope that we’re doing something," said Tobias, "We are restoring hope back to this community because it’s always been tiger pride. This is a resilient community."

All Benton Harbor residents can learn more about the free remediation program at an upcoming resource fair:

  • Benton Harbor Community Health & Environmental Resource Fair
    • Tuesday February 28
    • 4:00-6:00pm
    • Virginia Edwards Community Center (721 Nate Wells Drive, Benton Harbor, MI 49022)

Click here to apply for the free home lead inspection services in Benton Harbor.

Click here to check the Lead Service Line Replacement Project in Benton Harbor.

Click here for more information from MDHHS.

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