Lawsuit over Benton Harbor water seeks class-action status

Michigan

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (AP/WOOD) — Michigan and local officials have been targeted in a lawsuit over high levels of lead in Benton Harbor’s drinking water.

The lawsuit, filed this week in federal court, accuses the state and city of “deliberate indifference” in their response to the problem, which began to emerge in 2018. Doretha Braziel, one of many Benton Harbor residents listed in the lawsuit, said she only recently became aware that she should avoid drinking the water.

“The number of injured individuals who have been injured by exposure to lead in the Benton Harbor water is in the thousands,” according to the lawsuit, which seeks class-action status.

Alice Jennings of Detroit-based Edwards & Jennings is one of three attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the suit.

“The lead that’s caused damage already for the last three years… it’s irreversible, and particularly for children. This will be a burden that they will carry for the rest of their lives,” Jennings said. “We want their claims to be given priority as human beings in these United States.”

The lawsuit was filed a week after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it found a variety of violations at the Benton Harbor water plant as well as problems with how the city had communicated with residents about lead in the water.

The state has been supplying free bottled water for weeks and is pledging to help Benton Harbor replace lead service lines outside homes. Lead has been leaching from old pipes, although chemicals to reduce corrosion have been applied.

Many plaintiffs say were still drinking from their taps until October because they were not notified by the state or city that the water was unsafe to consume. Jennings says that is a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“Nothing was done. In fact, there was actually an attempt to say ‘Oh, the water was OK. You can keep drinking it…’ or whatever you need to do at that time,” Jennings said.

Keesha Jones, another plaintiff, is a mother of four who also takes care of one grandchild. Court documents say three of her four children have “Individual Education Plans because of learning difficulties and speech impairments” caused by lead consumption.

Another family who joined the lawsuit claims their pet, a great Dane, died after “his stomach bloated and flipped” from ingesting the tap water.

“It was well-known… that lead is pernicious. Any amount of lead will cause serious injury and high enough dosages can even cause death,” Jennings said.

Another issue the lawsuit tackles is city water customers continuing to pay for the service while dealing with the lead contamination.

“(The city and the water department has) been collecting money … all of these years for water that is not only basically useless, but water that is actually causing harm to the person,” Jennings said.

While the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and city this week announced a program to help pay such bills for eligible customers, Jennings argued customers should be reimbursed for previous bills on the grounds of unjust enrichment.

“They took those monies fully knowing that the water was poisonous with the lead. Yet they did not notify the community of what was going on,” Jennings said. “Why should the citizens have to pay for water that they can’t even use?”

A spokesman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer defended the state’s response. Bobby Leddy said regulators ordered corrosion control and urged the city to reach out to residents.

In a written statement, City of Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad responded he was “pleased with the strong partnership with Governor Whitmer and her administration.”

“The residents of Benton Harbor are pleased to see the continued distribution of water and the replacement of lead service lines in the City of Benton Harbor,” his statement continued.

As of Friday afternoon, City Manager Ellis Mitchell, who was also listed as one of the defendants, had yet to return News 8’s request for comment.

Benton Harbor is a predominantly Black, mostly low-income community of 9,100 people in southwestern Michigan.

A judge this week gave final approval to a $626 million settlement with Flint residents whose water was contaminated in 2014-15 with lead and bacteria. The state is paying $600 million.

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