Opinion: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer fails to lead as Benton Harbor's water crisis continues

This column originally appeared in The Detroit News.

On October 2, 2019, Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist stood in a room with Benton Harbor community leaders, where they told him — to his face — about dangerous lead levels in the drinking water, according to Michigan Rising Action.

Leaders asked Gilchrist to do something about the problem, and they asked the governor to provide bottled water until local and state officials could get the lead out of the tap.

Nobody seemed to have helped, heard or listened.

Two years later, community leaders in Benton Harbor filed an emergency petition seeking federal intervention to restore safe drinking water to the city and lambasted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration for failing to address a crisis they’d been warned about for years.

Last week, residents took things a step further. They filed a class-action lawsuit against Whitmer and other government officials over the poisoned water.

None of it seems to have helped just yet: still no fixes in Benton Harbor; still no clean drinking water; compounding the crisis, clean water advocates said — no warning from the state.

“They never told us the water was unsafe,” proclaimed one resident who said her skin was starting to itch because of the water. She said the state “has really failed us.”

By this point, that’s all (poisoned) water under the bridge. Dangerously, though, the Whitmer administration keeps on failing. Advocates could be forgiven if they were starting to wonder if they’ll ever get real help — or clean water.

Late in October, as Whitmer’s team began advertising bottled water distribution efforts (years after they were first necessary), staff from the governor’s team was frequently insufficient — if they showed up at all.

Cars lined the streets, waiting for safe, bottled water at one distribution site. No one showed up with water. According to the local Health Department, the Whitmer administration was supposed to be there. “I have no clue as to why” they aren’t, the official told one reporter. The state’s response was to blame community leaders.

Before Halloween, the state managed to get 34 pallets of bottled water delivered to another distribution site, the Abundant Life Church, but didn’t deliver enough hands to distribute it. Only six volunteers showed up, including a Republican state senator from the area who came just hoping to help.

On another day, the administration failed to deliver enough water. They ran out two hours before the distribution site was scheduled to close, leaving local families out of luck and out of patience.

Even last Friday, the state arranged only a single water pick-up site, with a four-hour pick-up window, and without a single scheduled member of the governor’s staff or volunteer available to load bottles.

Couldn’t they send anybody? To deliver clean water? To a poisoned city?

“This is a state of emergency,” one exasperated and frightened resident told the local ABC 57 News in October.  “I would like to be relocated into a safer place with clean water until they resolve this.”

Tragically, too few in the administration are taking this health crisis as seriously. Too few are responding with any sense at all of urgency. Any response has been marked with sheer incompetence.

“Nobody should be able to be drinking this water,” Rev. Edward Pinkney, the President, and CEO of Benton Harbor’s Community Water Council told ABC 57.  “The simplest thing is just to tell the people that the water is unsafe.  What’s so hard about telling people that it’s unsafe?  And you know it had been this way for three years.”

Whitmer’s team knew then, and they know now.

The city's water is still poisoned. The state is still failing.

Nothing’s changed. Who will help? Who will lead?

Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.

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