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Can Biden’s Infrastructure Law Save Benton Harbor?

The president wants to remove lead from drinking water, but the ailing Michigan city needs more than just an infusion of federal money.

When the New York Times tweeted its first story in October about the elevated levels of lead in the drinking water of Benton Harbor, Michigan, it noted the similarities to “nearby Flint.” It was a typical bit of the publication’s coastal myopia: Benton Harbor is about as far from Flint as the Times’ offices are from Providence, Rhode Island. But it’s hard to blame the paper for the geographic error, considering it’s not a categorical one.

Both Benton Harbor and Flint are majority-Black, postindustrial Michigan cities where decades of divestment, neglect, and institutional decay led to public health crises. In early October, state officials told Benton Harbor residents to use bottled water for drinking, brushing teeth, cooking, and making baby formula, out of “an abundance of caution.

It seems like a rerun of Flint, as Benton Harbor’s poorest residents’ lives are upended by a practically medieval issue. But where the Flint saga was a dramatic, prefab morality tale that featured outsize characters, moments of glaring symbolism, and national protest, what’s happening in Benton Harbor has been decidedly more muted. Flint was already a city synonymous with national decay, and its lead problem arose from a rash, misguided decision by a state-appointed emergency manager. Benton Harbor’s problems developed slowly over time, in a manner that’s far more common and insidious.

Its lead concerns date as far back as late 2018. Why it’s taken three years to hit the headlines and inspire major action is a bleak story about what happens when a city’s physical and civic infrastructures disintegrate simultaneously. It’s playing out in cities across the country, but especially the upper Midwest: In July, a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council revealed that the 10 states with the most lead lines per capita are mostly clustered in the region. Nearly 500,000 lines might still be in use in Michigan; Ohio has 650,000, a lower-bound estimate. Chicago alone is estimated to have 350,000, more than any other city in America.

President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which became law in November, makes a massive investment to fix the problem in Benton Harbor and elsewhere. The law sets aside $15 billion to replace lead pipes and service lines. An additional $10 billion could come in Biden’s Build Back Better bill. If the $25 billion total comes to fruition, it’d amount to nearly half of the high-end estimate of $60 billion that activists say is necessary to replace every lead pipe in the country.

Lead is especially harmful to children and pregnant women, because it can lead to behavioral and learning issues or harm the growth of a fetus, among other complications. It can also cause “high blood pressure, joint and muscle pain, difficulty with memory or concentration, and harm to reproductive health” in adults, according to a report from the NRDC.

But federal money alone is not enough to fix lead water issues: Experts say that the more money and labor needed to replace those pipes and create a cleaner water system, the heavier of a lift it is for already-beleaguered local governments. Even eight years after the beginning of the Flint water crisis, the city is just now nearing the end of its own pipe replacement. “The funding is not just for digging up the pipes,” said Erik Olson, a director with the NRDC who has worked closely on lead issues in Michigan. “It’s also for technical help, to help the community figure out how to do it.”

For all the uproar and media attention, life in Benton Harbor, pre-infrastructure bill, was identical to what it looks like today, and what it will tomorrow, and likely for years to come. Other cities are earlier in the process of discovering their rotten infrastructure, much less pulling it out. Just as Flint taught the nation about glaring racial and structural inequalities in America’s cities, the slow start in Benton Harbor offers its own, separate lesson about the grinding, pitfall-laden process of actually resolving the tainted water issue.

In autumn 2018, roughly four years after the beginning of Flint’s crisis, officials first urged Benton Harbor residents to test their water, after eight out of 30 homes tested for lead showed elevated levels. After more testing showed consistently high lead content, the city handed out filters and testing kits, and introduced a corrosion control agent to the city’s water supply, meant to prevent lead from leaching out of corroding pipes and water fixtures.

When Benton Harbor’s erstwhile major employer, the appliance company Whirlpool, announced the closing of its last plant there in 2010, the financial hit to the town left the city government flat-footed. Sharpening Benton Harbor residents’ awareness of the poor civic hand they’ve been dealt is its counterpart city St. Joseph, just across the river of the same name that divides the two towns.

The two cities have roughly similar populations of just under 10,000, but the resemblance stops there: St. Joseph is overwhelmingly white, where Benton Harbor is Black; rich where the latter is poor; leisure-minded where the latter has to fight for its barest institutions. In his 1999 book, The Other Side of the River, which explored the divide through the lens of the 1991 drowning of a Black teenager, which many suspect was murder, journalist Alex Kotlowitz wrote, “For the people of St. Joseph, Benton Harbor is an embarrassment. It’s as if someone had taken an inner-city neighborhood … and plopped it in the middle of this otherwise picturesque landscape.”

“There’s this long history of racial segregation, redlining in the community school system, issues with segregated schools, and just a whole history of racial inequality in Benton Harbor,” Olson said. “That, compounded with just the disinvestment in the community by the authorities, has resulted in this really serious problem with lead contamination.”

In late October, I sat down with Kim L. Smith Oldham, a native of nearby Van Buren County. As volunteers in a cavernous warehouse unloaded pallets of bottled water, milk, and peaches to needy residents, Oldham—who has the quintessentially Midwestern combination of geniality with a total unwillingness to tolerate nonsense—discussed her work for the nonprofit Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency over the past 25 years. She described the solidarity its residents have developed, and the almost supernatural level of patience and cooperation it takes to respond to an ever-growing level of need.

“It’s still a work in progress. You’re always fine-tuning it to see if we can do it this way, better.… At the end, we all have the same goal,” Oldham said. “It takes a bigger team than just one entity.”

That need for a collective lift has been glaringly apparent in the Benton Harbor government’s inability to respond to the crisis effectively. Of the residents I spoke to who were collecting water at the SMCAA warehouse, none of them could recall being contacted by the city regarding potential lead in their home; rather, they made the switch to bottled water out of the same combination of fear and mistrust that residents in Flint have described now for years, even as its own water supply has been mostly repaired.

“I wasn’t really paying attention to it until they started talking about it,” said Reginald Lewis, an older resident who wore an oxygen tube while waiting in line. “I don’t think I’ll be OK [drinking the water] for a while.”

Restoring Lewis and his fellow Benton Harborites’ trust is a tall order, almost as much as the actual pipe replacement. The strength of civic institutions has been dwindling in Benton Harbor for decades. The city’s local government has both overseen its long slide into dereliction and agitated relentlessly for outside assistance.

In November, the nonprofit news outlet Bridge Michigan said that in the 14 months following the initial reports of lead, “the city, lacking enough money or staff to quickly comply, had sought extension after extension.” A state memo said the city rejected offers for assistance with public messaging; the city’s water system was already in a cycle of debt that its mayor compared to payday lending, even before the discovery of lead.

“To be honest, these should have been replaced years ago, and we shouldn’t even be in the position that we’re in, but we are,” Elizabeth Hertel, head of the state Department of Health and Human Services, told The New York Times in October.

Benton Harbor’s mayor, Marcus Muhammad, is the city’s first democratically elected leader since the first emergency manager was appointed by the state in 2010, a move similar to the takeover in Flint before its own water crisis. Both were meant to bring the financially derelict cities into solvency, at any cost. The extreme austerity dragged the two cities painfully into “normal governance,” but also left them even more institutionally hobbled than before in dealing with a problem that vexes even relatively flush and functional cities like Chicago. “The problem is a lot of those communities just don’t have the expertise; a lot of them don’t even know that money is available,” said the NRDC’s Olson.

With nothing but an emailed statement from Muhammad to show for several weeks of trying to reach the mayor, I decided to drop in on City Hall in person. I walked into a modest, silent brick building tucked away just a block from Main Street, up to the second floor, where I pressed a buzzer for admittance to the office of the city manager, Ellis Mitchell. His friendly secretary knocked on his door and stepped into his office. I heard muffled voices as she explained my request, and she soon popped back out, asking again which outlet I represented. She shut the door, continued her conversation with Mitchell, and in a few moments stepped out. The city manager couldn’t speak with me after all. Nor could Mayor Muhammad, who had just happened to step out of the office.

Benton Harbor’s population has been slowly but surely dwindling since its peak in the postwar era, and the loss is palpable. The Modern Plastics plant on Empire Avenue, a hub of industrial-era middle-class culture in the city—and which employed the mother of Eric McGinnis, the Black teenager whom Alex Kotlowitz wrote about more than two decades ago—appears abandoned, covered in dead foliage as if its staff simply walked off one day. When I visited at peak commuting hour, the city’s downtown was eerily quiet, with just a few people shuffling out of its Main Street’s low-slung, humble offices and a legal cannabis dispensary.

The city’s comparatively small size can be a curse when it comes to many issues, but it also might be a small blessing when it comes to that pipe replacement program. The city has between 3,000 and 6,000 lead service lines, compared to the nearly 30,000 that Flint has merely inspected. (A December report from Michigan’s environmental agency showed promising results from recent corrosion control efforts, with lead levels in a sample close to or below the level that requires federal action.)

Post-infrastructure bill, Benton Harbor’s government will at least have plenty more money to throw at its problems. That’s good. But the more any given place looks like Benton Harbor, the more likely it is that acquiring that money will bring into a sharp, painful relief the history of deprivation, racism, and bureaucratic haplessness that led the city to fail its citizens’ most basic needs in the first place. If there’s any lesson for the Benton Harbors-in-waiting across the United States, it’s how those problems take a hell of a lot more than a quick infusion of cash to fix.

This article has been updated.