BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (WOOD) — The state is aiming to replace every lead water pipe in Benton Harbor in the next 18 months after high levels of lead contamination were found in the water.

Normally, a process like that in a similarly sized city would take 14 years, officials say. The money for the project will come from the state budget recently signed by the governor.

“No amount of lead in the water is safe,” Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said during a press conference in Benton Harbor Thursday. “So this action … that we’re announcing today is a set of actions we believe is escalating the state’s response.”

Until the water is safe, he said, the state will send 20 semi-truckloads carrying 35,000 cases of bottled water to the city each Monday. Director delivery will also go to area schools and senior living communities. Officials are also working to reach out to affected homeowners with free or low-cost bottled water and other resources.

“Every person in the state of Michigan deserves access to clean and safe drinking water. Every community deserves lead-free pipes,” Gilchrist said. “I am committed to ensuring that our most vulnerable are not forgotten in this process and this effort; that they are served as we push forward together.”

State health officials have urged Benton Harbor residents to not cook or drink with tap water. Data from the city shows the highest lead reading from sampled homes found 889 parts per billion, which is more than 59 times the state limit.

“Everyone deserves access to water that they can trust to drink themselves and that they can trust to give to their families. That is why we’ve made the decision to temporarily move residents to bottled water for cooking, brushing teeth, making baby formula, and rinsing food,” Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel said at the lieutenant governor’s press conference.

Gilchrist said more than 33,000 cases of water have been distributed so far.

Gilchrist announced that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has signed an executive directive to roll out an “all-hands-on-deck, whole-of-government approach” to responding to the lead contamination. The directive requires that everyone in Benton Harbor will have access to free bottled water until further notice and that they will have free access to drinking water testing and other health services for lead contamination. It also says the state will work with local and federal partners to speed up the pipe replacement. The state is also asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide ready-to-feed formula for mothers receiving Women, Infants and Children (more commonly known as WIC) benefits.

“Every Michigander deserves safe drinking water, and every community deserves lead-free pipes,” Whitmer said in a statement. “I’m proud to sign an Executive Directive today that will pursue a whole-of-government approach to protect access to safe drinking water right now and work tirelessly to replace every lead service line in Benton Harbor as soon as possible. I cannot imagine the stress that moms and dads in Benton Harbor are under as they emerge from a pandemic, work hard to put food on the table, pay the bills, and face a threat to the health of their children. That’s why we are also expediting the timeline to replace lead service lines in an effort to ensure that 100% of the pipes are lead-free in the next 18 months. 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.”

Gilchrist added that the Legislature could choose to send more federal infrastructure dollars that have not yet been appropriated to Benton Harbor.

The directive does not include financial relief for homeowners.

Guy Jones, a five-decade Benton Harbor resident, lives with three other people in his home. He said they use tap water for only showering and bathing, but not for drinking or cooking.

“I don’t try to live over my means, you understand? But the bills, the water bill is ridiculous,” he said.

He said his most recent water bill was more than $100, not including past balances. His daughter-in-law, who also lives in Benton Harbor, said her monthly bill is more than $1,000. City Hall has not explained why those bills may be so high.

While Jones welcomes the lead-free infrastructure, he still is worried about how much is coming out of his pocket every month for a utility he cannot use safely.

“That ain’t still going to help the bill, is it?” he said. “The bill ain’t going to go down. It’s going to go up.”

—News 8’s David Horak and Luke Laster contributed to this report.