‘LaSata and Wendzel have been AWOL’: Benton Harbor mayor slams GOP over water crisis

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad at an Oct. 21 House Oversight Committee hearing. (Anna Gustafson|Michigan Advance)

By Anna Gustafson, Michigan Advance

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad traveled to Lansing last month to ask state lawmakers for the $11.4 million that’s needed to replace his city’s aging pipes that have left about 10,000 residents unable to drink their tap water because of elevated levels of lead.

“If we recognize the urgency, then the response should be in kind,” Muhammad told lawmakers at the Oct. 21 state House Oversight Committee hearing on the lead crisis in Benton Harbor. “If you know this is an urgent 911, then cut the check. There’s a rapper named DJ Quik who says, ‘If it does not make dollars, then it does not make sense.’ This problem needs to be solved with revenue.”

In the days that have passed since the hearing, lawmakers have not proposed allocating that money for Benton Harbor, including the two Republicans who represent the city in the Legislature — state Sen. Kim LaSata (R-Bainbridge Twp.) and Rep. Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet), who did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Instead, Muhammad told the Advance that Benton Harbor “is being used as a political football, kicked back and forth while people in our community suffer.”

“It’s really sad; however, I’m not surprised because that’s been the state of affairs in Lansing: recall attempts [of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer], political jockeying, skullduggery, and no bipartisanship,” said Muhammad, who is a Democrat.

Muhammad has sparred with Whitmer in the past, speaking out against her plan to close Benton Harbor’s high school during a 2019 protest outside her Lansing office. State and city officials later reached a deal to keep the school open. 

Michigan Republicans seem especially keen on using Benton Harbor as a political pawn in their attempts to hurt Whitmer’s 2022 reelection campaign against her Republican opponents, including James Craig, a former Detroit police chief, according to Muhammad and Rev. Edward Pinkney.

“[Republicans] are using her as a punching bag,” said Pinkney, a longtime pastor in the community, referring to Whitmer, whom he also has criticized for not getting more involved in the city’s water crisis earlier.

“I was scheduled to speak at the [Oct. 21] Oversight hearing; the Republican Party really wanted me to come because they know Whitmer is not one of my favorite people and I’m not one of hers. But I wasn’t comfortable with that. They are really going after her. The Republican Party needs to take some of the fault also; you can’t say 100% of this is Whitmer.”

LaSata issued a press release Thursday announcing she was introducing legislation that would “allow Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to solve two problems at once: Divest herself of illegal campaign contributions and provide additional dollars to aid Benton Harbor residents struggling with contaminated water.” 

Senate Bill 713, which has no listed co-sponsors, would permit a candidate who received funds above traditional limits due to an active recall to deposit up to 100% of the contributions to the state’s contaminated site cleanup contingency reserve fund.

Whitmer has collected donations exceeding campaign donor limits due to an administrative ruling allowing elected officials facing recalls to accept unlimited contributions. But the Michigan Republican Party filed a lawsuit in September in an attempt to block that practice. And Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said in an October court filing that Whitmer will likely have to donate or refund about $3.4 million in contributions if that money isn’t used to fight a recall effort.

Muhammad called LaSata’s legislation “ridiculous.” 

“LaSata and Wendzel have been AWOL on this issue; to this very point, I have not heard from either of them [about the water crisis],” Muhammad said. “In fact, Sen. LaSata put out a release that the governor should donate campaign money to the city of Benton Harbor, again throwing politics into play. You should allocate money from the state budget. Why would you want to throw campaign money at a problem in Benton Harbor?”

LaSata and Wendzel have both known about the elevated lead levels in Benton Harbor for years, according to emails obtained by the Advance. 

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) sent an email in October 2018 — just after the first test showed elevated lead levels in Benton Harbor — to LaSata, notifying her of the lead issues, as well as what state and city officials were doing to address the matter. In July 2019, EGLE sent another email to LaSata’s office and to Wendzel about another round of testing that showed elevated lead levels in some Benton Harbor homes’ tap water. 

Since 2018, neither LaSata nor Wendzel have proposed funds to specifically address Benton Harbor’s lead issues. The two lawmakers issued recent statements noting they voted in favor of allocating $10 million for Benton Harbor’s lead line replacement in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget, $10 million less than what Whitmer had originally proposed. In her statement, LaSata said she is co-sponsoring Senate Bill 565, which would dedicate $2.5 billion to “improve and protect Michigan’s water quality, including $600 million to be used toward lead pipe replacement.”

“The details for Senate Bill 565 are still being negotiated, but I assure everyone in the community that the remaining needs of the Benton Harbor community will be part of the conversation,” LaSata said in her Oct. 21 statement.

Benton Harbor’s mayor said that the funding the city has received is in large part due to efforts from Whitmer and U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph). Muhammad said state Republicans have done little to nothing to address the lead. So far, the city has received funding to replace its lead pipes because Whitmer proposed $20 million for the project — $10 million of which was passed by the Republican-led state Legislature.

Benton Harbor also received a $5.6 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which Upton helped to secure in 2020.

“It seems to me that politics are still being played, and had it not been for Gov. Whitmer coming out and proposing $20 million, proposing to actually allocate some state funding to the city of Benton Harbor, we would still only be operating with federal funding for our water crisis,” Muhammad said.

Upton spokesperson Billy Fuerst said that, in addition to helping Benton Harbor secure the $5.6 million grant, Upton has been “in communication with the mayor and the state to see how we can get this resolved rapidly.”

“Certainly, there’s a demarcation between state, local and federal, and it’s really a local and state issue but Fred was happy to help get the money,” Fuerst said.

Benton Harbor needs a total of about $30 million to completely replace thousands of lead pipes in the city — where state budget cuts, systemic racism, white flight and the ensuing population loss, and a former emergency manager appointed by GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder laying off about half the city’s water plant staff have led to a deteriorating water infrastructure. 

State and city officials have said those aging lead pipes have resulted in some Benton Harbor homes testing positive for elevated levels of lead in their tap water. Since 2018, there have been six state tests that reported dangerously high levels of lead in some Benton Harbor homes. Lead is a toxic chemical that can cause brain and kidney damage, behavior problems and even death.

The fact that the first test showing elevated lead levels in Benton Harbor’s water was in 2018 has translated to a city — where about 85% of the population is Black and close to half of whom live in poverty — that feels abandoned by different factions of government.

“I believe both the Republicans and Democrats are responsible for this,” Pinkney said. “I know the Republicans would like to put the spin on the governor,” Pinkney said. “Even though it took her three whole years to really acknowledge [the water crisis], the Republican Party should’ve also done something about this. LaSata is from this area, and she should have done something about this.”

Bobby Leddy, a spokesperson for Whitmer, said that “since the first lead exceedance was detected in 2018, the state of Michigan has been on the ground in Benton Harbor working with local partners on a solution to address the aging infrastructure.”

“In accordance with the state’s strict Lead and Copper Rule, the teams immediately conducted outreach to residents and began applying corrosion control to try to bring down the levels and stabilize the drinking water,” Leddy said. “Because the actions taken with the city to date haven’t yielded the results we need, Gov. Whitmer ordered a whole-of-government approach to keep people safe. We’re providing free bottled water and setting an aggressive timeline to replace all the lead pipes in the next 18 months, which would’ve otherwise taken nearly 15 years to complete under state law. We will continue to take every step necessary with the urgency and haste this threat demands to ensure parents in Benton Harbor can give their kids a glass of water with confidence.”

The Whitmer administration announced Oct. 6 that Benton Harbor residents are advised to drink bottled water while government officials study the efficacy of water filters against the elevated levels of lead. EGLE Director Liesl Clark said during last month’s Oversight Committee hearing that while the state did not announce until this month that residents should drink bottled water, they provided “educational materials” about the fact that homes tested at elevated lead levels and distributed free water filters to residents beginning in 2018. 

In March 2019, the city of Benton Harbor, at the urging of EGLE, began adding what’s known as a “corrosion inhibitor” to the lead pipes in an effort to stop lead from entering the water. That, however, has not worked and homes’ tap water has continued to test positive for elevated lead levels, state officials said.

It is the fact that the elevated lead levels were discovered in 2018 but residents were not told to drink bottled water until this month that leaves Pinkney angry at the mayor, governor and lawmakers, among others. But, he emphasized, that anger is divided between the parties, and he has felt frustrated by GOP lawmakers’ attempts to get him to speak out against the governor.

“The Republican Party is just trying to make her the fall person in this because they’re not willing to accept any of the blame,” Pinkney said. 

Still, the pastor said, if the gubernatorial election were held today, he’s not sure he would vote for Whitmer.

“I just want Benton Harbor to become whole again; I don’t care if it’s Democrats or Republicans who do that,” Pinkney said. 

During the Oct. 21 hearing, House Oversight Committee Chair Rep. Steven Johnson (R-Wayland) said he shares residents’ frustrations over the elevated lead levels persisting in Benton Harbor for years.

“This is my problem: I understand in 2018 you get the first report … you do a corrosion treatment program, and it didn’t work,” Johnson said. “We go several reporting periods, and there’s still no change. Now it feels like we’re going from 0 to 100 miles per hour here. … We’re going from you can drink the water to, ‘Holy cow, you can’t drink this water.’ What changed in the last 30 days, because it seems like the [elevated lead level] numbers haven’t changed at all?”

Following the hearing, Johnson issued a press release in which he said, “We wanted to provide people with a platform to have a robust discussion to see how we got to this point,” adding that “the problem is that it took two years to shed some light” on the Benton Harbor lead crisis. However, it has been three years, not two, that officials have known about the elevated lead levels; it first came to light under the Snyder administration. Johnson and the Michigan Republican Party did not respond to requests for comment.

State Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.), who is on the House Oversight Committee, and House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski (D-Scio Twp.) both argued the Republicans are playing political games with Benton Harbor and said Democrats would back passing the $11.4 million requested by Muhammad. Whitmer also has called on the Legislature to approve the $11.4 million for Benton Harbor.

“The partisan gamesmanship keeps us from actually fixing things,” Brixie said.

State officials said the directive to drink bottled water, as well as the state providing free bottled water to residents, follows concerns regarding how well the state-provided water filters are working to protect residents against the elevated lead levels. 

Pinkney, however, said he believes the increased action from the state followed him and 20 other individuals and organizations filing a Sept. 9 petition with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the petition, Pinkney and the other filers ask the EPA to provide increased assistance to city and state officials handling the water crisis; it is, Pinkney said, likely a prelude to a class-action lawsuit against a variety of institutions, including city and state government.

Brixie accused Republicans of not wanting to address the role state budget cuts, such as diminished state revenue sharing, have played in creating Benton Harbor’s water crisis. 

“I want to see the Legislature take action to fix the lead problems in Benton Harbor and to fix the water problems in other cities we have across the state dealing with aging infrastructure, but the idea that our committee is actually conducting oversight is false,” Brixie said. “I was gaveled down when I tried to ask a question about revenue sharing, and revenue sharing is absolutely related to the terrible crisis in Benton Harbor.” 

Like cities across the state, Benton Harbor has seen funding from revenue sharing — monies that the state Legislature is expected to send to local governments — decrease over the past two decades. The Michigan League for Public Policy noted that Benton Harbor saw nearly $1 million diverted from its projected revenue share in 2016, and that level of disinvestment has continued, Muhammad said.

When Muhammad attempted to discuss the fact that the Snyder-appointed emergency manager laid off about half the water plant staff, including its director, last week’s Oversight Committee “hearing was abruptly ended,” Brixie said.

“That’s not oversight; that’s chasing headlines and trying to have a one-man show bashing the governor and all the departments,” she continued, referring to Johnson. “The chair doesn’t appear to be solving any problems; he just appears to be trying to make headlines.”

Lasinski agreed that decreasing amounts of state revenue share funds to cities is a major issue that needs to be addressed, particularly in light of the role it played in Benton Harbor’s water crisis.

“There’s a systemic defunding of local towns, villages and cities in Michigan,” Lasinski said. “This year, look at the House Republicans’ first budget proposal. It was to cut EGLE by 75%. Contrast that with what the House Democrats have worked for: we proposed a $250 million transformational infrastructure amendment for EGLE back in May, when budgets were being developed. But that was gaveled down.”