After fighting for clean drinking water since 2018, a Michigan city will finally get lead-free lines

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Residents of Benton Harbor, Michigan, a predominantly Black city that has dealt with elevated lead levels in its water for at least three years, have welcomed an announcement by the governor, that all lead lines in the city would now be replaced over the next 18 months.

The governor Gretchen Whitmer promised an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to addressing the water crisis that has been plaguing this impoverished city since at least 2018.

Related: A Black town’s water is more poisoned than Flint’s. In a white town nearby, it’s clean

Whitmer had previously proposed removing the service lines within five years – a timetable residents and environmental groups said was unacceptable. On Thursday, amid growing uproar from those who say Benton Harbor residents had lived with poor water quality from far too long, Whitmer issued a directive to speed up the removal process and to launch an “all-of-government” to ensure the south-west Michigan city has access to safe water.

“Every Michigander deserves safe drinking water, and every community deserves lead-free pipes,” Whitmer said in a statement on Thursday. “We will not rest until the job is done and every parent feels confident to give their kid a glass of water knowing that it is safe.”

Activists, who have consistently called for the immediate replacement of the city’s 6,000 lead pipes, took a moment to celebrate the development.

“I’m excited,” said the Rev Edward Pinkney, chair of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, on Thursday. “I think that is huge.”

The announcement comes just a week after the state advised residents of Benton Harbor, where people have complained about declining water quality for years, not to drink or cook with tap water “out of an abundance of caution”.

As the Guardian reported last month, many have long suspected there was something wrong with the city’s water. In 2018, testing revealed a lead content of 22 parts per billion – higher than that of nearby Flint at the height of the crisis that made that city a symbol of US environmental injustice.

But, despite three years of testing well above the federal lead action level of 15 parts per billion, state and local authorities did not take sufficient action to address the crisis, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council petition filed last month to the Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of Pinkney’s group.

When officials were slow to act, locals stepped in; Pinkney and others have organized bottled water drives, and done outreach to community members about the risks of lead.

The acceleration of the timeline to replace the city’s lead service lines is a welcome development for those who say the state previously overlooked the needs and health of the community.

“I applaud the Benton Harbor Community Water Council,” Pinkney said of his team of volunteers. “Their consistent [activism] led to this.”

In September, the state announced it would distribute water filters to every home in the city and provide free bottled water. And earlier this month, the state promised to expand those efforts, when it advised not to drink the water.

Whitmer said her executive directive on Thursday “builds” on those efforts. In addition to expediting service line replacement, Whitmer said her administration would continue to provide free bottled water “until further notice”, offer “free or low-cost lead-related services” such as water testing, and “collaborate closely” with various agencies and community groups.

Federal, state, and local resources would be marshalled to address the crisis, Whitmer said in the statement, adding that she also expects to be able to fund the removal of Benton Harbor’s lead lines with money from Joe Biden’s infrastructure plans, which are currently stuck in legislative limbo on Capitol Hill.

Biden has vowed to replace every lead pipe in the United States, which experts say is necessary to protect not only those in Benton Harbor and other cities already in the throes of crisis, but in communities in all 50 states that are vulnerable to contamination.

“We shouldn’t wait until there’s a crisis to remove the lead pipes,” said Elin Warn Betanzo, a Michigan drinking water expert who was one of the first to identify the Flint crisis. “The best time to remove lead service lines is before things go wrong.”

In Michigan, activists and experts applauded the announcement Thursday as a long overdue step in the right direction.

“When it comes to protecting the health and safety of our children, the only way forward is an all-hands-on-deck approach,” said Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha, who is nationally-recognized as the pediatrician who exposed Flint’s water crisis, expressing hope that Benton Harbor would “be our nation’s last lead-in-water crisis”. “I am grateful to Governor Whitmer and her administration for respecting the science of lead’s neurotoxicity and ensuring the people of Benton Harbor have safe water to drink.”

“The governor has come a long way in terms of responding to the Benton Harbor water crisis,” added Cyndi Roper, the NRDC’s senior policy advocate for Michigan. “The response is absolutely heading in the direction the community has been asking for. We are optimistic.”

But Pinkney said there was still more work to be done, including ensuring that all in Benton Harbor were fully aware of the scope of the crisis – something he says will require more forceful language from state officials.

“We’ve got 18 months before the pipes are gonna be completed,” Pinkney said, urging officials to formally declare the water dangerous instead of telling residents they are acting “out of an abundance of caution”. “It is crucial that [Whitmer] makes clear that the water is unsafe to use in that time.”

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