If the volume of press releases is any indication, the State of Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) is extremely interested in City of Benton Harbor water. Benton Harbor, located in Berrien County on the southern curve of Lake Michigan, has made headlines for state funded water distribution and lead waterline replacement. Superficial similarities may lead Michigan residents to consider Benton Harbor as “the new Flint water fiasco.” So much spending, the reasoning goes, means the state is appeasing a politically-connected base for some sort of mismanagement by city, state, and federal officials (or all of the above). Though cynicism abounds, no one doubts that Benton Harbor residents have a lead problem. But does their problem warrant this much state interest? Common sense and equity direct state resources equally, or to areas of greatest threat and need.
Water Tests versus Blood Tests
All testing is not equal. Lead in the blood means neurological damage may already have occurred. Water lead levels are more common: drinking the water carries risk of causing later damage. As an example of water testing, MDHHS identified Benton Harbor among fourteen Michigan cities with excess lead water levels on October 24, 2019: However, a deeper look at blood lead levels reveals the following facts:
- The Berrien County Health Department stated it is unaware of any upsurge in Blood Lead Levels (BLL) in an email sent to a member of the MHF Research Team.
- Michigan communities such as Detroit, Wayne County, and Saginaw have far higher numbers of children with BLL, according to the MDHHS Environmental Public Health Tracking site.
- State of Michigan and county BLL have all fallen since 2000
Berrien County tested 28 children under the age of 6 with BLL in 2019, and 31 in 2020. This is similar to Jackson (28, 33) and Kalamazoo County (51, 30).
Why did MDHHS single out Benton Harbor for Taxpayer-funded State Aid?
MDHHS began a flood of press releases on October 6, 2021 that still continues. Over the past six months, the state repeatedly publicized “free” blood tests and bottled water to Benton Harbor. Interspersed were MDHHS press releases specifically targeting Benton Harbor with other aid:
- “… food assistance and other state assistance program benefits like health care coverage, childcare, utility relief and cash…”
- paid community volunteers and distribution sites
- Thanksgiving turkeys
- Payment of past-due water and wastewater bills through federal assistance, as well as some trash, internet, and cable bills
- Meridian Health Plan donations
- Recycling 5,300 pounds of empty water bottles
The total of MDHHS press releases regarding Benton Harbor stands at 89. This week, Benton Harbor recieved another windfall of taxpayer funding.
To be continued in Part 2.
— the MHF Research Team contributed to this article.