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Who Will Pay to Replace Milwaukee’s Lead Pipes?

70,000 homes need new pipes but inexpensive water filters could help for now

Sep. 13, 2016
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Roughly 70,000 older Milwaukee homes have pipes that could be contaminating residents’ drinking water with lead and need to be replaced.

But at about $3,000 to almost $4,000 per home, who will pay for the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to fix the problem?

That’s the big question for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who said last week that he would include a plan and timeline in his proposed 2017 budget to begin replacing the lead pipes in Milwaukee’s older homes.

Barrett said last week his ultimate lead pipe replacement plan would likely need to be mandated in some way, since so many low-income residents with lead pipes are renters with absentee landlords who wouldn’t be motivated to do the right thing for their tenants.

But will each homeowner be on the hook for replacing their pipes? And do the lead pipes truly need to be replaced, or are there cheaper and easier solutions?


Milwaukee Shortchanged by DNR 

Milwaukee isn’t alone in dealing with lead pipes, as they’re part of the infrastructure of older homes throughout the country.

Over the course of a decade, Madison covered the costs of replacing the lead pipes in 6,000 of its older homes, finding that it saved money for the city in the long run. Other communities have crafted cost-sharing programs, so homeowners aren’t on the hook for the entire cost of replacing the old pipes all at once.

About 44% of Milwaukee homes were built before 1951 and have lead pipe laterals, meaning that the pipes leading from the main water lines to about 70,000 homes contain lead. The main water lines, which are owned by the city and run under the streets, do not contain lead. Newer homes—and all Milwaukee public schools—do not contain lead pipes.

The water pumped by the Milwaukee Water Works does not contain lead and is treated with phosphates, which coats the pipes and reduces the chance that lead within the pipes is flaking off and getting into residents’ drinking water. In contrast, Flint, Mich., created a public health crisis when it failed to add phosphates to its drinking water supply, leading to more lead contamination from its old pipes.

Children are most at risk for negative health impacts from prolonged exposure to lead, such as anemia and kidney and brain damage. Pregnant women with elevated lead exposure can pass on the effects to their unborn children, causing impaired nervous systems, behavioral problems and decreased intelligence as well as miscarriage and stillbirths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since the lead pipes that need to be replaced in Milwaukee are on private property, revenues from the Milwaukee Water Works cannot be used to remedy the problem, thanks to state Public Service Commission policy.

Milwaukee is receiving some federal dollars for replacing the pipes, but it’s clearly not enough.

The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is drawing down the federal funds and passing them on to communities in need around the state.

Although Milwaukee has 40% of the 176,000 homes in Wisconsin with lead pipes, under the DNR’s initial plan, Milwaukee would only receive 6.8% of the $11.8 million federal funds sent to the state. Ultimately, Milwaukee received $2.6 million total, according to Public Works Department spokeswoman Sandra Rusch Walton, $1.6 million to replace lead laterals in 385 licensed day care centers and approximately 15 private K-12 schools, plus an additional $1 million.

At a Marquette University Law School-hosted forum last Wednesday, Barrett chided DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, saying it would be “mayoral malpractice” not to point out that the DNR is shortchanging Milwaukee’s residents in need.

“I understand political realities, but is it fair to the low-income people of the City of Milwaukee if this course would mean that it takes us 50 years to solve the problem here, and it takes five years to solve it in another community?” he said.

“From our perspective, it’s how do we solve a very gigantic problem that’s in front of us that’s across our state,” Stepp responded, saying she’s heard from communities all over Wisconsin that need funds to replace homeowners’ lead pipes. She said she’s been working on the funding issue with Gov. Scott Walker as well.

Fred Royal, president of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP, suggested requesting the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District (MMSD) to allocate money to replace the laterals, but Barrett countered that the PSC likely would not allow it. (MMSD spokesman Bill Graffin told the Shepherd he was unaware of any effort for the district to replace the lead pipes.)

NAACP’s Royal said it was “criminal” to ignore the very real health issues facing the city’s children.

“The city, state and county could get in a room and figure out how to pay for a $500 million sports arena, but you can’t get in a room to figure out how to replace 70,000 laterals?” Royal said during the Marquette forum. “That should be criminal, in my opinion.”


What Can You Do? 

Milwaukee has done much to alleviate lead exposure to children in the past few decades through an aggressive lead abatement program, which focused on ridding older homes of lead paint. According to Milwaukee Health Department data, city children with elevated lead levels have dropped from 8,681 children in 2003 to 2,594 in 2014.

That said, the children with lead exposure live in the Zip codes with the highest concentration of poverty. Health Department data show that in 2014, 383 children with elevated lead levels live in the 53204 Zip code on the near South Side; 381 children in the 53206 Zip code on the near North Side; 330 children in the 53215 Zip code; and 311 children in the 53208 Zip code on the near West Side.

These neighborhoods are disproportionately low income and made up of African American and Hispanic families.

At a Thursday press conference, Barrett, whose own home has lead laterals, suggested ways to reduce lead in a home’s drinking water. First, he said, run the tap with cold water for at least three minutes to flush out the pipes, which will cost less than 10 cents each time. Use only cold water for cooking and drinking; bathing and doing dishes with hot water isn’t harmful.

Barrett also recommended using a NSF/ANSI standard 53 filter on the faucet or in a water pitcher, which costs roughly $30 but needs to be replaced from time to time, as well as removing and cleaning the faucet’s aerator. Barrett also suggested that homeowners talk to a plumber about replacing any lead pipes in the house as well.

That said, Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech University professor who uncovered lead problems in Flint and in Washington, D.C., said at the Marquette forum that while filters are effective in the short term, the lead pipes ultimately needed to be removed and replaced. 

“There’s this consensus emerging that as long as that lead pipe is there no one should ever consider that water is safe,” Edwards said, likening it to lead paint in the home.

If you have questions about your home’s pipes, go to city.milwaukee.gov/water, where you’ll find a list of properties that likely have lead pipes and instructions on reducing lead in your drinking water.


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