A water main break in Benton Harbor, Michigan, has resulted in a city-wide loss of water pressure that has shuttered schools and upended businesses on Thursday.
The rupture in the major artery for the city’s water supply — which officials warned can allow disease-causing bacteria to enter the tap water — comes as the predominately Black community was already told not to drink the city’s water due to a crisis of toxic lead that residents have been grappling with for years.
The mounting issues afflicting Benton Harbor’s drinking water have raised allegations of environmental injustice in the town where some 45% of residents live in poverty and 85% are Black, according to most-recent Census data. It has also shined a harsh spotlight on the real-world impacts of the nation’s dilapidated infrastructure as lawmakers in the nation’s capital are mulling over the Biden administration’s “Build Back Better” infrastructure plans.
Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad tweeted Thursday morning that the burst in the 89-year-old water main “is taking longer than expected to address.”
“The contractors are still working on getting the water level down in order to repair the water main,” Muhammad added. “Thank you for your patience and understanding. We will continue to provide you with updates.”
The water main break occurred Wednesday afternoon and resulted in a “system-wide loss of water pressure across the city,” according to a statement from the Berrien County Health Department, urging residents “not to drink the water until further notice.”
“City water customers have previously been recommended to use bottled water, and should continue to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, making ice, brushing teeth, washing dishes, rinsing foods, and mixing powdered infant formula at this time, as well as after water is restored,” the statement added. “After the water pressure is restored, residents should flush the water taps for 5 minutes before using the water for washing hands, showering or bathing.”
The statement said these precautionary actions are being taken not because of the elevated levels of lead that has already been detected in the water, but “due to the potential for bacteria to enter the water supply after a loss of water pressure.”
County officials did not say what caused the break.
Free bottled water is being made available to Benton Harbor residents. Muhammad said in a second tweet Thursday that a YMCA in the area was offering its facilities to residents for showers.
Meanwhile, the Benton Harbor Area Schools Superintendent Andraé Townsel said in a letter to parents and caretakers posted on the school system’s website that six local schools will not have class on Thursday due to the water main break. He added that they anticipate school resuming on Friday.
The latest crisis comes just days after Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer visited Benton Harbor, and issued a new call for the state legislature to provide an additional $11.4 million investment needed to help expedite the replacement of lead pipes and service lines in the city.
Elevated levels of lead have been detected in the Benton Harbor’s water system since at least 2018, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council petition filed last month to the Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of local advocacy groups and residents.
Residents continue to live with “significant and dangerous levels of lead contamination three years after the contamination was first discovered with no immediate solution in sight,” the petition states, calling it an “environmental justice” issue.
Frustration among residents has mounted in recent months, in part due to what they see as delayed responses from the state and local government.
“Three years of this is ridiculous,” Rev. Edward Pinkney, a local faith leader told the local news outlet MLive, after a water handout organized by the state’s department of health ran out of water bottles 30 minutes after it was supposed to start earlier this month. Rev. Pinkney said he and his grassroots organization have been passing out 2,000 cases of water per month on their own dime since 2019.