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Benton Harbor mayor talks about his city's lead water crisis

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's a familiar story - a majority Black town in Michigan has high levels of lead in the water. Officials have known about it for years. People wait in long lines for water to bathe, cook and brush their teeth with. But we're not talking about Flint here. This time it's Benton Harbor in the southwestern corner of Michigan. Last week, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer set an 18-month goal for replacing the lead pipes throughout the city. Marcus Muhammad is the mayor of Benton Harbor, and he joins us now.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MARCUS MUHAMMAD: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: When did you first hear about the lead problem?

MUHAMMAD: So in 2018, we were confronted by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to inspect and look at our water filtration. And they tested 30 homes, and they found that eight homes out of the 30 that were tested exceeded the 15 parts per billion, which is above the federal guidelines for the limit. And then we procured funding through EGLE in the state of Michigan to begin the process of changing lead service lines.

SHAPIRO: Sorry, just to jump in for a moment. If 2018 was when the state first started to become aware that there was a problem with lead in Benton Harbor, why has it taken until just now for the governor to say, all right, we're going to replace all of these pipes, don't drink what comes out of the tap? Do you think families with kids are comfortable with the idea that lead has to be in the water for three years before the state takes aggressive action to do something about it?

MUHAMMAD: Well, I mean, no amount of lead is acceptable. The wheels of governments unfortunately sometimes can turn slow. But, you know, my issue and focus at this time, sir, is eliminating the problem, because the next service lines were in the ground - you know, I'm 46 - much longer than that.

SHAPIRO: Do you think the city could have done more to let people know that they should beware of this, that they should not be drinking the tap water? I mean, the city put out a press release in August, but as of this weekend, some residents of Benton Harbor didn't seem aware of the danger the water posed.

MUHAMMAD: Well, you know, I spoke with the mayor of (unintelligible). She talked about, you know, when she had to go door-to-door to tell residents, you know, you have to evacuate your house right now, you know, due to the two dams breaking and flooding. You know, so I had to go back and, you know, rewind in 2018, you know, when we sent out the letters to the homes, and we put it in the newspaper. And it was, you know, really news all over. But in terms of going door to door, you know, as the mayor and letting residents know, you know, maybe that kind of campaign would have been more informative. And again, that's hindsight.

SHAPIRO: There are so many commonalities with what happened in Flint. Have you been talking to officials in that city about their lessons learned?

MUHAMMAD: Yes. I've met with Mayor Neeley. I spoke with former Mayor Weaver this morning. You know, but I take issue with that because what happened in Flint - you know, lead service lines - yes, that's a commonality. But we never switched our water source. Our water source is Lake Michigan. As always, this is a issue of infrastructure - old pipes. That's the way homes were built. And the issue comes down to dollars and cents. You know, $30 million for a city like Benton Harbor is Mount Everest.

SHAPIRO: This is a city of about 10,000 people.

MUHAMMAD: Of 10,000 people with a per capita income of 21,000, with a 70% rental base - so that's why we need states to lean in. We need the governor's support. We need the Biden administration. But when we have political chicken going off and politricks (ph), then mayors like me have to sit and wait, and people suffer at the bottom because games are going on at the top.

SHAPIRO: That's Marcus Muhammad, mayor of Benton Harbor, Mich. Thank you very much.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.