Benton Harbor starts accepting bids to replace lead pipes

Benton Harbor leaders announced Monday that the city is accepting bids from contractors for an ambitious project to replace all lead water pipes no later than 2023 due to elevated levels of the toxic metal in the municipal supply.

Related: Whitmer orders urgent response to Benton Harbor lead crisis

Because the "action level" for lead has been exceeded, for three years, the estimated 2,800 service lines generally must be removed over 14 to 15 years under federal and state regulations. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised last month to spend millions of dollars to replace them in 18 months.

Benton Harbor formally invited bids last week and released details about the plan on Monday.

"We’re very excited here in the city to make that announcement. I know that it will be received gladly," Mayor Marcus Muhammad said in an interview.

MORE: State urges residents to use only bottled water in Benton Harbor

Residents in the impoverished, predominantly Black community have been encouraged to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula.

Muhammad said he anticipates contractors lining up to bid for the work.

"It’s almost like a gold rush, for lack of a better example, any time there’s $30 million on the table," he said.

Companies will be required to use trenchless technology to minimize the disruption to properties. They will have to restore the condition of driveways, sidewalks and landscaping. And there will be incentives and penalties to ensure the work is done well and on time.

"We focused on collaboration and expertise across the public and private sector, and we developed a plan to move quickly and serve as a model for other communities in Michigan and across the country," said Regina Strong, the state’s environmental justice public advocate. Benton Harbor, she said, is another example of an under-resourced community with aging infrastructure.

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency instructed the city to improve corrosion control, repair filters at its treatment plant and better notify residents of lead exceedances.

The Whitmer administration has estimated it could cost $30 million to replace all 6,000 service lines, many of which consist of lead or unknown materials. The state has contributed $10 million. The city also is receiving $8.6 million in federal grants and loans for pipe replacements.

Muhammad estimated it will cost $5,000 on average to replace each lead line.

"We’re right where we want to be," he said of the funding secured to date.