A century or more ago, Benton Harbor in southwest Michigan was known for its Lake Michigan port, its burgeoning fruit farms and, most important, its mineral baths.

Tourists flocked to establishments such as the Hotel Dwan to soak in, and sip, the water that was supposed to cure their ills. Now, Benton Harbor’s water has another, grimmer reputation: for possible lead poisoning.

In October, the state accelerated efforts to replace, within 18 months, the city’s lead service lines bringing water to Benton Harbor’s roughly 9,700 residents — about 85 percent of whom are Black. The city is paying for local volunteers and community groups to make home deliveries of bottled water. More than 100,000 cases have been delivered so far.

But community advocates and environmentalists accuse the state of taking far too long to act on a problem that was identified three years ago. What’s happening in Benton Harbor, they say, too strongly echoes the neglect and official indifference that met the deadly water crisis in Flint, Mich., another city that is majority African American, only a few years ago.

How dangerous is Benton Harbor’s water? In 2018, eight out of 30 homes tested exceeded the action level of 15 parts per billion for lead. The city was put under a state advisory and began issuing free water filters. Now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is testing the reliability of those filters.

Only then will the extent of the problem come into focus, but lead may have been “poisoning hundreds, if not thousands, of residents for years,” according to the Herald-Palladium, a plucky regional newspaper that has covered the story closely. Last week, reporter Juliana Knot spoke with Benton Harborites who said they were unaware of the danger until Oct. 7, when the state urged residents to drink bottled water.

ProPublica writer Anna Clark, who wrote a book on the Flint scandal, has a theory about why Michigan’s leaders have been slow to address the small town’s problem: The state has been beset by too many problems. “When you’re in a place where everything’s an emergency,” she said, “nothing’s an emergency, and it neutralizes everything.”

Emergencies have buffeted much of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s tenure since the Democrat took office in 2019, vowing to “fix the damn roads.” Responding to the pandemic, Whitmer enacted extensive countermeasures in the spring of 2020, including one of the country’s strictest stay-at-home orders.

That prompted vitriolic criticism from many in Michigan, and the following month armed protesters descended on the state Capitol. Some of the demonstrators participated in a plot to kidnap the governor that was broken up by the FBI.

Whitmer has tangled repeatedly with the Republican legislature over pandemic policy, as well as with anti-mask and anti-vaccine critics. Michigan is still shy of its bid to deliver a first dose to 70 percent of the population aged 16 and up, and it’s one of a handful of states where cases continue rising.

All this is in addition to disastrous floods that swept Detroit in June, exposing the city’s aging and vulnerable infrastructure.

You can see why Benton Harbor might have been off the state government’s radar until lately, even if that is no excuse when people’s health and well-being are at stake.

Still, the problem of lead in Americans’ tap water is scandalously common. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that between 2018 and 2020, 56 percent of the U.S. population drank from water systems with detectable levels of lead.

Last month, Whitmer finally put Michigan’s Black lieutenant governor, Garlin Gilchrist, in charge of a rescue plan for Benton Harbor, just as the national media began paying attention.

Earlier this year, Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said the city would have replaced its lead service lines three years ago, but didn’t have the money. The state’s 2022 budget includes $10 million for replacing the lead water pipes, but Muhammad says it’s a $30 million job. More money may be forthcoming from the infrastructure bill tied up in Congress.

Whitmer, Gilchrist and other public officials are playing catch-up on this, but they still have an opportunity to demonstrate competence if they can make the 18-month replacement plan work.

If Whitmer is smart, she’ll try to speed up even that ambitious target. She’s up for reelection next fall, and potential Republican challenger James Craig, the former Detroit police chief, is already trying to tie her to the Benton Harbor mess.

Whitmer could counter the GOP by noting that Republican Rick Snyder, now fighting misdemeanor criminal charges for willful neglect of duty in the Flint scandal, was the governor when Benton Harbor’s water troubles emerged.

But pointing out that she inherited the Benton Harbor mess won’t be much help if the EPA report, expected soon, indicates that residents have been slowly poisoned for years. She just needs to fix the problem as quickly as possible. Access to safe drinking water is one of the basic expectations of any American, in any town, large or small.