Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer ran on clean water for Flint, a heavily Democratic city in Michigan that has been shown lots of love from high-profile Democrats like Barack Obama over the last several years.
As governor, though, she dragged her feet on helping another city that leans Republican and had dirty water saturated with even more lead than Flint’s. Now, her administration is scrambling to make up for lost time.
Benton Harbor is a city in southwest Michigan, 180 miles west of Flint. For the past three years, Benton Harbor residents have suffered from emergency levels of lead in their water.
While the cities’ water crises looked similar, their political leanings do not. Genesee County, where Flint is, voted nearly 54% for Biden in 2020, while Berrien County, where Benton Harbor is, voted for Trump by nearly 53%. Both cities are majority black.
In May 2018, while Whitmer was running for governor, Benton Harbor received $284,000 from Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s administration to replace compromised lead pipes. At that point, Benton Harbor Water Superintendent Mike O’Malley estimated that 60 percent of Benton Harbor homes had lead-tainted pipes.
That was not enough to fix the problem, however. Several months later, in August, Benton Harbor homes tested above the federal action level for lead in their water pipes. Then in November 2018, water fixtures at the city’s schools tested above the federal action level for lead. Since then, residents have been repeatedly advised of high lead levels in the water.
Meanwhile, Whitmer campaigned on fixing lead-tainted pipes in Flint and other areas in Michigan.
“This government has failed the people of Flint time and time again,” Whitmer said in a video she released in May 2018 that showed her handing out bottled water to Flint residents.
In a July 2018 ad, she even admitted that Benton Harbor’s pipes “now [have] more lead than Flint.”
Once she was elected in 2018, however, she paid little attention to the small city of about 10,000 people.
Flint, on the other hand, has received hundreds of millions in emergency aid for its water crisis. Of the $390 million in state aid Flint received, about $129 million was spent on economic development and “social development,” and only $144 million was spent on ensuring the city’s drinking water supply was safe, according to state spending data.
During a 2018 gubernatorial debate, Whitmer called clean drinking water a “fundamental human right” and promised that residents complaining about water “won’t get ignored for two years.”
In March 2019, state and local officials began treating the water with a corrosion chemical blend, but that effort to fix the lead issue failed.
Finally, residents were fed up. In September, local community and environmental groups in Benton Harbor submitted an emergency petition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) alleging that the Whitmer administration failed to provide free drinking water and filters to residents.
The EPA responded saying it would provide “support and oversight” to assist Benton Harbor with delivering bottled water to residents.
In response, Whitmer’s administration launched an aggressive effort this fall to combat the crisis.
In October, Whitmer asked the state legislature for another $11.4 million in addition to the $18.6 billion already going toward fixing pipes, $5.6 million of which was given to the city by the EPA under President Donald Trump. Whitmer also visited Benton Harbor last month.
Also last month, the Michigan health department advised Benton Harbor residents to use bottled water for drinking, cooking, brushing teeth, and mixing baby formula. Shortly afterward, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist announced that all the city’s lead service lines would be replaced within 18 months.
“If we had not filed that petition, none of this would be going on,” said Rev. Edward Pinkney, a local pastor and president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, at an event in the city to distribute water.
“The people of Benton Harbor have suffered for too long,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said this month.
Last month, Liesl Clark, who heads Whitmer’s new Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, declined to answer when asked repeatedly by a state lawmaker whether Benton Harbor’s water was safe to drink.
“Come on, let’s talk like normal people here. It’s a normal question: Is the water in Benton Harbor safe to drink or not?” asked House Oversight Committee Chairman Steven Johnson, a Republican, as he tried a fifth time to elicit an answer from Clark.
“No, it’s not. People should be drinking bottled water,” Clark finally responded.
Gus Portela, communications director for the Michigan Republican Party, accused Whitmer of “playing politics with the situation” and called for an investigation into the delay.
“This is gross negligence from this governor. She’s failed to deliver on a key promise. She promised transparency and accountability and hasn’t been transparent or accountable to the people,” Portela told The Daily Wire.
“I think it’s important that Michiganders look at this and judge a governor by her lack of actions. Her administration has known about this for three years and is only now acting,” Portela said. “I think it’s time that a proper investigation is opened and conducted as to when she knew and why she decided to act so late to the detriment of the citizens in Benton Harbor.”