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All the Water in the World, and None of it to Drink

By Evan Kanji

This is a heavily abbreviated version of a full multimedia project on structural racism and reparations in the Benton Harbor water crisis. You can find the full project, which includes more details and an additional piece and set of interviews on reparations, at this link.

Less than a decade ago, the Flint water crisis made headlines as one of the worst public health failures of our time. In the majority Black city, which has shrunk in population from over 200,000 to under 100,000 since the 60s (Census Bureau), 100,000 residents were exposed to lead over the course of several years. Dozens died from a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak (PBS), but the full health toll from the lead exposure will continue to grow over the coming decades. In Detroit and neighboring Highland Park at the same time, another water crisis happened without the same level of national attention. In those majority Black cities, which have also shrunk in population by over half since the 60s (Census Bureau), thousands of low-income residents had their water shut off because they couldn’t pay exorbitant bills.

The St Joseph river, with Benton Harbor on the left (credit: https://img.marinas.com/v2/8c99d430f598c3faf5186943f79086578e6e0ee89a879c944e6c44b754852ab9.jpg)

Now, another water crisis has struck in Benton Harbor, a majority Black city whose population has been cut in half since the 60s. Residents complained about the water and advocated for years to get authorities to take action. An emergency manager slashed staffing in half at the water plant (Metro Times). For three years, residents drank lead tainted water from their tap: the lead tests have been well above the EPA action level since 2018 (Michigan Radio). Until a couple months ago, state, federal, and local governments sat by as the problem got worse, giving residents no information or guidance on the unsafe water even as the problem got worse. After three years of lead exposure with no action, it will be years before we understand the full devastation of the health consequences. Sound familiar?

At the root of all of these crises is systemic disinvestment, starting with the housing policy that cut the populations of these bustling industrial hubs in half and left those who stayed without meaningful economic opportunity. Long-term disinvestment in these now majority-Black core cities, coupled with local tax structures that keep tax dollars for infrastructure and social services in the mostly white suburbs, maintain the divide into the 21st century. We have set up a system where the responsibility for funding and fixing disinvestment falls on the disinvested-from.

Cities under emergency management in Michigan, compared to the Black population (credit: https://www.wethepeopleofdetroit.com/water)

Benton Harbor and neighboring St. Joseph are a classic story of American segregation and disinvestment: an 85% Black, low-income city separated from the mansions and resorts of the wealthy, 85% White St. Joseph by a river (Census Bureau). It wasn’t always this way. For most of the early to mid 1900s, Benton Harbor and St Joe were white communities. While Benton Harbor was never redlined, there were many other policies at play that incentivized the white residents of Benton Harbor to move out. Loans from the Federal Housing Administration, which heavily subsidized mortgages in the suburbs, were given almost exclusively to white families, incentivizing them to move out by giving them a long-term pathway to intergenerational wealth (Jackson 190–218).

As the decades wore on, Benton Harbor kept losing more and more people to the suburbs. Between 1940 and 1950 (the decade where FHA loans became available), the white population began to decline (Butzbaugh 59). The overall population peaked in 1960 at 19,000 people, and has dropped ever since, hitting 9,750 in 2019 (Census). In the 1960s alone, over half of the White population left (with the number dropping from 14,000 to 6,000), while the Black population more than doubled (from 4,800 to 9,700) (Butzbaugh 59). Today, the city is 85% Black, and has a median income of $21,000 (Census). With the population sliced in half and wealth in the city dropping, the city budget never had a chance to keep up with the needs of aging infrastructure.

In spite of this history of federally and state subsidized disinvestment at the root of Benton Harbor’s financial trouble, these financial struggles today are seen by those in positions of power as a local problem (Seamster 200–201). Water crises, whose immediate roots are typically in cost-saving measures, are a direct outcome of this failure.

When these systemic problems are treated as local mismanagement by state governments and other powerful institutions, they justify taking away community control. Under a 2011 law, Michigan could install an emergency manager to unilaterally take over the functions of local government in “financially distressed” cities (Seamster 177–185, Reedy 58–62). By 2014, nearly half (49.7%) of the Black residents of Michigan lived under emergency management, with effectively no local democratic representation (Reedy 64). Of the 8 cities under emergency management, seven were majority Black.

In Benton Harbor, emergency management meant a dramatic slashing of city functions. The emergency managers immediately set about firing city staff, terminating lines of institutional memory (Seamster 211). The water plant was hit particularly hard: the number of staff at the plant was more than cut in half, one of the reasons cited for slow action during the crisis.

A member of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council distributes bottled water (credit: The Guardian)

Benton Harbor residents have long complained about discolored, poor tasting, expensive water with negative health effects. Years of organizing around water issues coalesced into the Benton Harbor Community Water Council in 2018. They have put consistent pressure on the city, state, and EPA to pay for bottled water and pipe replacement and played a key role in obtaining and spreading information. Two and a half years ago, they took matters into their own hands, buying bottled water to distribute with their own money before eventually collecting donations.

The state finally began testing the water in 2018, finding elevated lead levels. lead levels have increased every year. Most recently, 15% of homes tested exceeded the EPA’s (very weak) action level; the highest tested home came in at 889 parts per billion (Michigan Radio). The Benton Harbor community has stood up for their rights at every turn: no meaningful government action was taken until community groups held government’s feet to the fire, filing a petition with the EPA in September to secure free bottled water and coerce the state into immediate action.

In shrinking cities with old infrastructure, a common pattern has emerged. Journalist Anna Clark described a “death spiral”:

“Flint’s infrastructure was in a death spiral. The water rates were expensive because the pipes were bad because vacancy rates were high because the city had been shrinking for so long. Costly bills tempted residents to move to the suburbs….Then there were even fewer people to pay into the system, which meant there was even less money to maintain it, which meant rates went up further” (Clark 20–21).

While Michigan paid for the replacement of Flint’s lead pipes, they put in place an “unfunded mandate” for cities to replace their lead service lines in the next 20 years. Much of this burden falls on Michigan’s oldest communities, primarily disinvested-from cities as well as lower-income rural towns: communities who are already paying disproportionately to maintain their infrastructure, and where water rates are already high.

In line with this attitude, the state initially ordered Benton Harbor to take several remediation measures, but didn’t give them any money to do so. Local officials pushed back, saying “Water rates, already the highest in the area, do not have the capacity to raise the (money) necessary to replace lead service lines.” In this way, dual crises converge: the crisis of affordability, brought on by depopulation, exacerbates the lack of money that creates lead crises.

Today in Benton Harbor, there are a lot of promises. The state has promised to replace all lead service lines in the next 18 months, lightning speed compared to the glacial pace at which these replacements usually happen (Michigan Advance). They recently started paying for bottled water and filters as well (Water Coalition members had been funding distribution themselves for two and a half years). All the while, community leaders have been pushing the state for pipe replacement, greater water funding assistance, and accountability.

But much of the damage is already done. Like in Flint, the full health toll on Benton Harbor will not be seen for decades. And even if the state follows through and replaces all of the lead pipes, they haven’t begun to touch the root issue — the fact that because of how intensely local our infrastructure funding is, that cities depleted by federally-incentivized suburbanization and disinvestment just don’t have the money to maintain the infrastructure required for healthy residents. Reparations for past crises haven’t begun to touch this reality: in Detroit and Highland Park, there has been only temporary pandemic-related relief; while in Flint, the individual reparations (while a crucially important piece of justice) do little to remedy the underlying issue, with some local activists calling it a “band-aid on a bullet wound.”

The conditions that led to the crises in Flint, Benton Harbor, Detroit, and Highland Park aren’t the exceptions — they’re the rule. Our state and federal governments must focus on what we can do to restructure our water systems and the finances behind them, and how we think about providing human rights more generally in deeply segregated places. Without systemic reparations in places already hit by water crises, and without proactive investment akin to what white suburbs received through housing segregation, Benton Harbor will not be the Great Lakes State’s last water crisis.

Thank you to Monica Lewis Patrick, Rev. Edward Pinkney, and Anna Clark for their generosity, support, wisdom, and tireless work on these issues.

Further Reading:

Scholarly Sources:

Immergluck, Daniel, and Marti Wiles. “An Analysis of Residential Lending Patterns in Benton Harbor and St Joseph, MI.” Woodstock Institution, May 1999, https://woodstockinst.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/benton.pdf.

Butzbaugh, Tiffany Anne Loftus, “A Socio-Historical Analysis of the Benton Harbor, Michigan Desegregation Case between 1967 and 1981” (2003). Dissertations. 1213. https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/dissertations/1213

“Flint Water Settlement Bonds — A Fiscal Justice Analysis.” Activest, 19 May 2021, https://www.activest.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Activest-Research-Brief_Flint-5-19-2021.pdf.

Seamster, Louise. (2017). Race, Power and Economic Extraction in Benton Harbor, MI. 10.31235/osf.io/6qx9j.

Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. Oxford University Press, 1985.

Parmet, Wendy E. “The Flint Settlement: The Exception That Proved the Rule: Health Affairs Blog.” Health Affairs, 2 Sept. 2020, https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20200831.452812/full/.

Clark, Anna. The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy. Picador, 2019.

Reedy, Tyler C. “Democracy & Despair: Riots, Economic Development, and an Emergency Manager in Benton Harbor, MI.” Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 13021., Iowa State University, 2013, https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/etd/13021. Accessed 12 Oct. 2021.

Press sources:

“Who We Are.” We The People of Detroit, https://www.wethepeopleofdetroit.com/who-we-are.

Demas, Susan J. “Whitmer: Goal Is to Replace All Benton Harbor Lead Service Lines in 18 MOS. ⋆ Michigan Advance.” Michigan Advance, 14 Oct. 2021, https://michiganadvance.com/blog/whitmer-goal-is-to-replace-all-benton-harbor-lead-service-lines-in-18-mos/.

Wang, Frances Kai-Hwa. “How Segregation and Neglect Left Benton Harbor, Michigan with Toxic Water.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 21 Oct. 2021, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/how-segregation-disinvestment-and-concentrated-poverty-preceded-lead-troubles-in-benton-harbor.

Gustafson, Anna. “Meet the Volunteers Who Have Been Passing out Bottled Water in Benton Harbor since 2018 ⋆ Michigan Advance.” Michigan Advance, 26 Oct. 2021, https://michiganadvance.com/2021/10/27/meet-the-volunteers-who-have-been-passing-out-bottled-water-in-benton-harbor-since-2018/.

Kelly, Margie. “Groups File Emergency Petition Asking EPA to Order Safe Water for Benton Harbor, MI Due to Shocking Lead Contamination.” NRDC, 9 Sept. 2021, https://www.nrdc.org/media/2021/210909-1.

Anna Gustafson, Michigan Advance. “In Benton Harbor’s Water Crisis, a Long History of Systemic Racism — and a Chance for Justice.” Detroit Metro Times, Detroit Metro Times, 19 Nov. 2021, https://www.metrotimes.com/news-hits/archives/2021/10/26/in-benton-harbors-water-crisis-a-long-history-of-systemic-racism-and-a-chance-for-justice.

House, Kelly. “Amid Lead Crisis, EPA Orders Benton Harbor to Fix Water Quality Violations.” Bridge Michigan, https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-environment-watch/amid-lead-crisis-epa-orders-benton-harbor-fix-water-quality-violations?omhide=true&utm_source=Bridge%2BMichigan&utm_campaign=cf294f2264-Michigan%2BEnvironment%2BWatch&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c64a28dd5a-cf294f2264-75236145.

House, Kelly. “Michigan Environmental Leader Admits Flaws with Benton Harbor Lead Crisis.” Bridge Michigan, https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-environment-watch/michigan-environmental-leader-admits-flaws-benton-harbor-lead-crisis?omhide=true&utm_source=Bridge%2BMichigan&utm_campaign=cf294f2264-Michigan%2BEnvironment%2BWatch&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c64a28dd5a-cf294f2264-75236145.

House, Kelly, and Jonathan Oosting. “Docs: Benton Harbor Water Response Marked by Delays, Poor Messaging.” Bridge Michigan, https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-environment-watch/docs-benton-harbor-water-response-marked-delays-poor-messaging?omhide=true&utm_source=Bridge%2BMichigan&utm_campaign=cf294f2264-Michigan%2BEnvironment%2BWatch&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c64a28dd5a-cf294f2264-75236145.

Egan, Paul. “Records: Unlawful Flint Use of Portable X-Ray Scanners Began in 2019, Not 2020.” Detroit Free Press, Detroit Free Press, 12 Sept. 2021, https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/flint-water-crisis/2021/09/12/unlawful-flint-use-xray-scanners-began-one-year-earlier/8275952002/.

Gustafson, Anna. “In Benton Harbor’s Water Crisis, a Long History of Systemic Racism — and a Chance for Justice.” Detroit Metro Times, 10 Nov. 2021, https://www.metrotimes.com/news-hits/archives/2021/10/26/in-benton-harbors-water-crisis-a-long-history-of-systemic-racism-and-a-chance-for-justice.

Riquier, Andrea. “Flint Water Crisis Victims Will Receive $641 Million. Just Don’t Call It ‘Justice’.” MarketWatch, MarketWatch, 19 May 2021, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/flint-water-crisis-victims-will-receive-641-million-just-dont-call-it-justice-11621436545.

Childress, Sarah. “We Found Dozens of Uncounted Deaths during the Flint Water Crisis. Here’s How.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/interactive/how-we-found-dozens-of-uncounted-deaths-during-flint-water-crisis/.

Carmody, Steve. “An Estimated 50,000 People Sign up for Flint Water Settlement.” Michigan Radio, 31 Mar. 2021, https://www.michiganradio.org/law/2021-03-31/an-estimated-50-000-people-sign-up-for-flint-water-settlement.

Dwyer, Dustin. “Benton Harbor’s Lead Problem Is Nothing like Flint’s. That’s the Scary Part.” Michigan Radio, 14 Feb. 2019, https://www.michiganradio.org/families-community/2019-02-12/benton-harbors-lead-problem-is-nothing-like-flints-thats-the-scary-part.

Ellison, Garret. “‘This Is Ridiculous.’ Frustrations Mount at Benton Harbor Lead Crisis.” Mlive, 9 Oct. 2021, https://www.mlive.com/public-interest/2021/10/this-is-ridiculous-frustrations-mount-at-benton-harbor-lead-crisis.html.

Fleming, Leonard N. “Benton Harbor Urged to Use Bottled Water Due to Lead Risk.” The Detroit News, The Detroit News, 8 Oct. 2021, https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/michigan/2021/10/06/benton-harbor-urged-use-bottled-water-due-lead-risk/6026581001/.

Fleming, Leonard N. “Emergency Petition Filed with EPA over Benton Harbor Drinking Water Lead Levels.” The Detroit News, The Detroit News, 10 Sept. 2021, https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/michigan/2021/09/09/benton-harbor-lead-levels-drinking-water-environmental-protection-agency-emergency-petition/8259556002/.

Kalakailo, Sophia. “Residents of Benton Harbor Will Get Filters, Bottled Water, Blood Lead Testing in Children.” Michigan Radio, 24 Sept. 2021, https://www.michiganradio.org/2021-09-23/benton-harbor-residents-will-get-bottled-water-filters-blood-lead-testing-in-children.

Lutz, Eric, and Erin McCormick. “A Black Town’s Water Is More Poisoned than Flint’s. in a White Town Nearby, It’s Clean.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 21 Sept. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/sep/21/benton-harbor-michigan-lead-water-poisoned.

“Our Commitment to Health Equity.” Our Commitment to Health Equity | Berrien County, MI, Berrien County Health Department, http://www.bchdmi.org/1733/Commitment-to-Health-Equity.

Mack, Julie, and Scott Levin. “See List of Michigan Cities with Most African American Residents, and Geographic Shifts since 1970.” Mlive, 23 June 2020, https://www.mlive.com/public-interest/2020/06/see-list-of-michigan-cities-with-most-african-american-residents-and-geographic-shifts-since-1970.html.

Egan, Paul. “Records: Unlawful Flint Use of Portable X-Ray Scanners Began in 2019, Not 2020.” Detroit Free Press, Detroit Free Press, 12 Sept. 2021, https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/flint-water-crisis/2021/09/12/unlawful-flint-use-xray-scanners-began-one-year-earlier/8275952002/.

Goetz, Dylan, et al. “‘Band-Aid on a Bullet Wound’: Flint Residents, Officials React to $626-Million Water Crisis Settlement Approval.” Mlive, 11 Nov. 2021, https://www.mlive.com/flintwater/2021/11/band-aid-on-a-bullet-wound-flint-residents-officials-react-to-626-million-water-crisis-settlement-approval.html.

Oladipo, Gloria. “‘Band-Aid on Bullet Wound’: Flint Water Settlement Leaves Some Residents Angry.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 11 Nov. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/nov/11/flint-water-crisis-victims-626m-settlement.

Catolico, Eleanore. “Why There’s No End in Sight for Highland Park’s Water Affordability Crisis.” Detroit Metro Times, Detroit Metro Times, 10 June 2021, https://www.metrotimes.com/detroit/why-theres-no-end-in-sight-for-highland-parks-water-affordability-crisis/Content?oid=21757556.

Ast, William F. “Violence Brings Back Bad Memories for Some.” The Herald Palladium, 19 June 2003, https://www.heraldpalladium.com/localnews/violence-brings-back-bad-memories-for-some/article_68724761-d569-5e8f-9ea3-a317d95e32f1.html.

AST, WILLIAM F., and MICHAEL ELIASOHN. “Second Night of Violence Leaves at Least 15 Injured in Benton Harbor.” The Herald Palladium, 18 June 2003, https://www.heraldpalladium.com/localnews/second-night-of-violence-leaves-at-least-injured-in-benton/article_8e19d588-708d-5c05-886e-73fef9b2ff94.html.

Gibbons, Lauren. “Racial Tensions That Led to 1967 Detroit Riot Were Felt in Several Michigan Cities.” Mlive, 20 July 2017, https://www.mlive.com/news/2017/07/how_other_cities_in_michigan_r.html.

Online Primary Sources and Data

Pinkney, Rev. “Rev. Pinkney Online Radio by Rev Pinkney.” BlogTalkRadio, https://www.blogtalkradio.com/rev-pinkney. A BH community leader’s opinions on many different issues, including several episodes on water issues and the lead crisis.

“Quickfacts: Benton Harbor City, MI.” U.S. Census Bureau, 2019, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/bentonharborcitymichigan,US/PST045219. Demographic census data on Benton Harbor and the surrounding area.

“Lead: Health Problems Caused by Lead.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 June 2018, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/lead/health.html.

“Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America.” Digital Scholarship Lab, https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=8/42.075/-86.995.

“Michigan Legislature.” Michigan Legislature — Senate Bill 0565 (2021), http://www.legislature.mi.gov/(S(j1cg3hslxdbt0z2z2mbn4axu))/mileg.aspx?page=GetObject&objectname=2021-SB-0565.

“Coronavirus Covid-19 Water Restart Plan.” City of Detroit, https://detroitmi.gov/departments/water-and-sewerage-department/dwsd-customer-service/coronavirus-covid-19-water-restart-plan.

Interviews with Monica Lewis Patrick and Anna Clark (embedded in full project)

Evan Kanji is a student at Stanford University studying race and environmental engineering. He is originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and plans to return home to work on water equity issues after graduation. You can reach him at evkanji@stanford.edu.

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