Note from Fluoride Action Network:
Benton Harbor MI was fluoridated in September 1951. Robert Carton PhD, a former scientist with EPA, had reported this: “December 1991 — Benton Harbor, Michigan: Faulty pump allowed approximately 900 gallons of hydrofluosilicic acid to leak into a chemical storage building at the water plant. City Engineer Roland Klockow stated, “the concentrated hydrofluosilicic acid is so corrosive that it ate through more than two inches of concrete in the storage building.” This water did not reach water consumers, but fluoridation was stopped until June 1993. The original equipment was only two years old; Mr. Klockow had hoped to recover the cost of the pump and repair costs to the building.”
BENTON HARBOR, MI — Broken equipment. Overflowing chemical tanks. Inaccurate sensors. Uncalibrated monitors. Disorganized staffing. Missing records.
There’s much amiss at the Benton Harbor water plant.
A September inspection by state and federal regulators turned up a laundry list of problems at the Benton Harbor water treatment system, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report released this week with an order directing the city to fix its troubled drinking water plant.
The order comes amid outcry and high-profile scrutiny on elevated lead results in Benton Harbor’s water, a chronic problem dating back three years which prompted community advocates to seek federal intervention this fall.
City residents have been using bottled water since early October, when state health officials urged avoidance of the tap supply “out of an abundance of caution.”
The 43-page inspection report outlines a weeklong review in which the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) identified alarming mechanical breakdowns with the plant’s disinfection treatment, a process by which chlorine is added to kill harmful pathogens in the distribution network that can sicken water users.
According to the report, plant staff are not properly calculating chlorine dosing and the chief operator, a contractor working for a division of the engineering firm Fleis & VandenBrink, was unable to even locate where the disinfection chemical was first being added to raw water in the system.
During the EPA walkthrough, multiple pieces of equipment used to monitor chlorine concentrations were not functioning and a dosing room device used to prevent backflow, which can lead to cross-contamination in finished water, wore a tag indicating it was last tested 13 years ago. Operators are “assuming that the existing set points are providing adequate disinfection,” wrote inspectors.
The Sept. 20-27 inspection paints a picture of a utility system in overall disarray. Contractors were repeatedly unable to locate certain devices and unable to produce records on important system components, such as backflow prevention or interconnections with other nearby water systems should the need for emergency water arise.
Emergency connection with a neighboring water system could have been useful in October, when a primary main serving Benton Harbor’s water tower burst and left the entire city without water service for two days.
Other concerns identified in the inspection include severe paint flaking over a raw water well, overflowing chemical tanks, disorganized staffing, multiple instances of broken, non-functional or uncalibrated equipment, unmarked tanks connected to fluoridation treatment, outdated contaminant sampling procedures and numerous missing records.
A monitoring and alarm system that’s meant to allow for potential automation and issue cell phone alerts to plant operators was flagged as not functioning properly.
While inspecting a room containing aluminum sulfate, a nontoxic liquid used to purify drinking water, inspectors found an overflowing chemical tank thought have been caused by “an operator (who) had improvised a way to hold the button without being present at the tank.”
The report indicates many issues with the system have remained unfixed since 2018, when EGLE noted them during an operational evaluation known as a sanitary survey.
During a conference between EPA and EGLE inspectors, city staff and contractors with F&V Operations & Resource Management, Benton Harbor officials were unable to produce a budget for the plant operations and did not know when the system’s last rate study occurred.
The city also could not produce a contract with F&V, which began operating the plant last November after the previous operator, Michael O’Malley, went on administrative leave. F&V’s chief operator, Abul Ahmed, began June 11.
F&V referred comment on its plant operations to Benton Harbor City Manager Ellis Mitchell, who did not return several MLive messages. Neither EGLE nor EPA would make someone available to speak about the inspection report.
In an email, EPA Region 5 spokeswoman Taylor Gillespie said the agency is working with the city to correct problems identified during the inspection and pointed to EGLE as the agency with primary responsibility for implementing Safe Drinking Water Act regulations in Michigan.
“There are so many questions about what’s going on,” said Elin Warn Betanzo, a water engineer and former EPA official who runs the consulting firm Safe Water Engineering.
“Everything about disinfection is broken,” she said.
Polyphosphate corrosion control, which Benton Harbor began adding in 2019 at EGLE’s direction to coat lead service lines in its distribution network following its first lead exceedance, “is never going to do anything if you don’t have control over your chlorine,” Betanzo said.
“They don’t even know what their chlorine dose is.”
Disinfection chemicals are added to municipal water supplies to prevent the growth of disease-causing bacteira such as legionella, giardia and cryptosporidium.
It’s unclear from available health data whether troubles with water plant disinfection have resulted in any illnesses. The 2019 communicable disease surveillance report from Berrien County, the most recent year available, shows an uptick in Legionnaires’ disease across the county at a sharper increase than the state or region but does not break down data by municipality. There were 16 Legionellosis cases in Berrien County in 2019 versus 8 in 2018 and 1 in 2017.
Statewide, Legionellosis has also been on the rise and symptoms tend to mimic the flu.
Beyond bacterial concerns, chlorine addition is supposed to be closely monitored in water treatment because it can react with organic material in the water and create disinfection byproducts called trihalomethanes (THMs). Exposure to high amounts of THMs have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and birth defects.
Benton Harbor’s 2020 water quality report notes the ongoing detections of lead but does not show violations for THMs or other regulated contaminants.
The city has been dinged for several Safe Drinking Water Act violations in the past couple years. According to the 2020 water quality report, system operators failed to collect synthetic chemical and PFAS samples for several months and ran the plant without adding aluminum sulfate, resulting in a boil water advisory last November. A similar chemical feed interruption resulted in another boil water advisory in May.
The city also received a violation last fall due to failed chlorine monitoring equipment and was cited for failing to adequately inform water system users about lead detections.
Betanzo expressed concern that the plant’s numerous operational problems are somehow not resulting in other contaminant violations beyond the federal action level exceedances for lead — a potent neurotoxin for which there’s no safe exposure level.
“It’s way, way, way beyond the lead,” said Betanzo, who played a crucial role in helping expose the water crisis in Flint.
Betanzo was among a group of environmental and public health advocates who petitioned for an EPA intervention in Benton Harbor this fall after watching chronic lead detections continue despite EGLE’s attempts to add and tweak corrosion control since March 2019, when the state put the city under an administrative consent order as a corrective effort.
The petition is credited with sparking the state to begin a more intensive response in Benton Harbor this fall, including the recommendation that residents begin using bottled water.
Petitioners largely focused on lead and unsuccessful efforts to reduce action level exceedances since 2019, but they noted other problems with the water system, such as high turnover in plant management in the past few decade and an overall lack of expertise among utility personnel.
On Tuesday, the EPA directed Benton Harbor to improve disinfection and corrosion treatments, tighten up contaminant monitoring, repair broken equipment and contract with a third-party to study “alternatives for the long-term operation and maintenance of the system.”
EGLE issued a separate but related legal violation notice to Benton Harbor on Tuesday, directing the city to survey the conditions of its water distribution system.
The state says the city’s water treatment plant deficiencies are “part of a legacy of decades of disinvestment in the city’s century-old water system, amplified by the myriad challenges of an environmental justice community with shrinking population served by a water system designed for twice the customers and twice the rate base.”
Benton Harbor sources water from Lake Michigan. Its lead detections are being attributed, in part, to more robust sampling procedures mandated after the Flint crisis and challenges with water stagnation in a system that is oversized for its roughly 9,800 customers.
Benton Harbor lost about a third of its customer base in 2011 after Benton Charter Township disconnected and built its own system. Parts of St. Joseph Township disconnected in 2013 and hooked up to the city of St. Joseph supply. The city population has also declined by about 900 people in the past decade. Such losses sap utility revenues and can result in a system delivering water to a smaller area than it was designed to, which can allow water to stagnate in pipes for longer periods where it’s more likely to absorb lead.
The majority Black, low-income city has struggled financially and was under state-appointed emergency financial management from 2010 to 2016.
October 22, 2021: This city will rely on bottled water for weeks because of high lead levels, Associated Press
October 22, 2021: Benton Harbor, Michigan, declares state of emergency due to contaminated water, CNN