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Judge dismisses claims against state officials in all 3 Benton Harbor lead contamination cases

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Judge dismisses claims against state officials in all 3 Benton Harbor lead contamination cases

Oct 02, 2023 | 4:21 am ET
By Kyle Davidson
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Judge dismisses claims against state officials in all 3 Benton Harbor lead contamination cases
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The Benton Harbor water tower. | Anna Gustafson

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan has dismissed all claims against state agencies and officials in three cases seeking damages for lead contamination in Benton Harbor, determining that state actors did not contribute to or worsen contamination.

All three suits were brought by residents of Benton Harbor, who argued that named officials and agencies failed to warn residents about the toxicity of the city’s water. Those named in the suits include Gov. Gretchen Whitmer; the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS); and other state officials, all of whom were defended by the Department of Attorney General. 

‘Where is the justice for Benton Harbor?’

Ahead of Thursday’s ruling from Federal Judge Hala Jarbou, Magistrate Phillip J. Green recommended all three federal suits — Daretha Braziel v Whitmer, Iesah Mitchell v City of Benton Harbor and Dwayne Grant v EPA — be dismissed. 

“Today’s ruling reflects the state’s proactive response to the water contamination in Benton Harbor,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a statement announcing the court’s decision. 

“[Ninety-nine percent] of all lead service lines have been replaced under state oversight and the state continues to engage residents on the quality of their water. This case of lead contamination was not due to acts of the state, as affirmed by the Court today. State officials immediately acted to their best abilities to remediate the situation when they learned of elevated lead levels,” Nessel said. 

The dismissal of the suits will not interfere with state efforts to assist Benton Harbor residents, according to the Michigan Department of Attorney General, nor will it interfere with lead service line replacements in the community.

Many Benton Harbor residents previously told the Advance the city’s water crisis had not been properly addressed at any level of government, noting that the crisis in the majority Black city was the outcome of institutionalized racism and disinvestment in the community. While elevated levels of lead were first detected in samples of Benton Harbor Water in 2018, the state did not begin offering free bottled water to residents until early October 2021. Benton Harbor community members began distributing water in 2018.

Although the state did not begin distributing water until 2021, the state offered free filters to residents following the detection of elevated levels of lead in tap water. State officials said the decision to begin distributing bottled water in 2021 came from concerns that filters were not removing the lead from residents’ water. 

According to the Attorney General’s Department, the state has been working with Benton Harbor since 2018 to repair its aging infrastructure, saying the work began prior to the detection of elevated levels of lead in the water.