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State officials in Michigan scratched from lawsuit over lead in Benton Harbor's water


BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (AP) — A federal judge on Thursday dismissed state officials from a lawsuit related to past lead contamination in a small southwestern Michigan city's drinking water but said the case could proceed against city officials, including the mayor.

Lawyers for residents compared Benton Harbor to Flint where lead contaminated the city's water system in 2014-15. But U.S. District Judge Hala Jarbou said there were significant differences.

The state had a hands-on role in switching Flint's water source to the Flint River and then failing to order treatment to reduce corrosion from old pipes. But such a role wasn't present in Benton Harbor.

State regulators “did not create the city’s water problem,” Jarbou said.

Jarbou said the lawsuit, which claims violations of federal rights, can proceed at this early stage against Mayor Marcus Muhammad, the city and former water plant director Michael O’Malley. They deny misleading the public about water quality.

For three straight years, tests of Benton Harbor’s water system revealed lead levels in water that were too high. Lead can be especially harmful to young children, stunting their development and lowering IQ scores.

Experts said an aging water system, fewer users and other issues caused lead to leach from pipes in Benton Harbor, a majority-Black community of just under 10,000 people. Water flows from Lake Michigan to a treatment plant.

Virtually “all lead service lines have been replaced under state oversight, and the state continues to engage residents on the quality of their water,” Attorney General Dana Nessel said.

The Associated Press