The Contaminated Water Crisis in Benton Harbor, Michigan

A volunteer with the Benton Harbor Community Water Council helps distribute bottled water to residents. (Image Credit: Jim Vondruska)

While many people are familiar with the Flint water crisis, less people have heard about the water crisis in Benton Harbor, Michigan, where even higher concentrations of lead were found in the water system in 2018. Benton Harbor, Michigan has declared a state of emergency in order to accelerate the long-overdue replacement of lead pipes that contaminate the city’s water supply. Residents have described how the “water smelled like sewage.” Despite the city water system testing high for dangerous concentration of lead since 2018, city officials have been slow to act. Since October 6, the residents have been advised to use bottled water for drinking and cooking.

This kind of criminal disregard for human life is typical of cities with a majority working-class population, and even more so when it is a majority of people of color. Benton Harbor has about 9,600 residents, and 85% are Black. At least half of the city is living in poverty.

As in many cities in the U.S., the drinking water in Benton Harbor has been privatized and is now run by a for-profit company, F&V Operations. The city was subjected to a state-takeover in 2013, which is part of the standard playbook of capitalist governments: first they defund and neglect a public service until it is in extreme deficit or a state of emergency. That gives them the excuse to initiate a state takeover, which then allows higher-up officials to open the doors to their capitalist buddies and privatize those services.

We should not delude ourselves into thinking that privatization is the only problem here. The water in Benton Harbor is contaminated because it is a 100-year-old system of lead pipes that should have been replaced long before it was privatized. When corporations get license to directly control public services, things will typically get worse. But capitalist governments are not that much better.

When governments are referred to as the “public sector” or a government service is called a “public service,” we are being fed the lie that it is actually controlled by the public. In Abraham Lincoln’s famous words from the Gettysburg Address, he called for “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.” In reality, these words were never true in any capitalist society, let alone the richest one here in the United States. This is not a government of the people, by the people, for the people. It is – and has been from its founding – a government of the capitalists, by the capitalists, and for the capitalists. As we see with the situation in Benton Harbor, everything, down to the water we depend on for life, is fair game to be disregarded in their thirst for profits.