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Getting the Lead Out

Jun. 20, 2017
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Photo credit: Stephen Mitchell (Flickr CC)

Milwaukee officials say that if the tainted-water scandal in Flint, Mich., has taught them one thing, it’s that no amount of lead exposure is safe.

Now, they are preparing to put the city’s money where their mouth is by embarking on what could well prove to be one of the largest public works projects in the city’s history: The replacement of the more than 76,000 lead water lines running to residences and businesses throughout the metropolitan area.

Estimates of the cost of that work run anywhere from $511 million to $756 million. Even if current plans are followed and the work is spread out over 50 years, it won’t be cheap.

And the lead pipe replacement is just one of the infrastructure projects city residents will be asked to pay for in coming years. A recent report from the nonprofit Public Policy Forum finds that city residents will soon be asked to pay more not just for service pipes, but also water mains, sanitary sewers and improvements to the general sewer system.

Making sure all of this doesn’t hit residents too hard will require an extraordinary degree of cooperation among the various government agencies that oversee different parts of the local sewer and water system.

“What is this going to mean for local government budgets? And what is it going to mean for taxpayers and for ratepayers?” said Rob Henken, president of the Public Policy Forum. “Often, decisions concerning these matters are made in vacuums. But if you are a homeowner, you are going to be impacted by all of this.”

The Public Policy Forum’s report, named “Beneath the Streets: The outlook for Metro Milwaukee’s largest water and sewer infrastructure assets” points out that Milwaukee Water Works’ responsibilities go well beyond lead service lines. Since 2014, for instance, the local utility has been under a state mandate calling for an accelerated replacement of water mains. These arteries of the city’s water distribution system have been breaking in recent years at or near what the state Public Service Commission considers an unacceptable rate.

Utility regulators are now requiring that 20 miles of these main lines be replaced a year starting in 2020, up from 15 miles this year and a mere 2.6 miles in 2012.

And the Milwaukee Water Works is only one of several local agencies with big infrastructure projects looming on the horizon. Sanitary sewers maintained by the Milwaukee Department of Public Works and the regional collector and treatment system run by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District will also need a substantial amount of repair and maintenance work in coming years.

Once again, local residents will be the ones paying, either through increased utility rates or higher property taxes. The Department of Public Works, for instance, has projected local sewer and wastewater fees will have to increase by between 3% and 5% a year.

Although many residents will no doubt want someone to blame for all these costs, local utilities and agencies receive praise in the Public Policy Forum’s report for prudently managing their assets and taking reasonable steps to keep costs down. But try telling that to someone trying to support a family on a low income.

“If your property taxes are going up 2 or 3% a year, and your sewer and storm water fees are going up 5% a year, and your MMSD share is going up 4% a year—in a city like Milwaukee, with a very high impoverished population—that’s where you have issues,” Henken said.

These costs will be lessened somewhat by the mere fact that they will be spread over taxpayers and ratepayers living in a fairly big metropolitan area. But for residents and business owners who actually have lead service lines running to their properties, there will be an additional and much more direct hit.


Private/Public Responsibility

The city is technically on the hook for replacing only the part of a service line leading from a water main to a private property owner’s lot line. Once across that line, the responsibility shifts to the private owner.

In making their service line replacement plans, city officials quickly recognized that stopping at the city-owned portion of pipe would do little to prevent lead from getting into the water used in someone’s home. Hence, last year Milwaukee adopted an ordinance requiring local residents to replace their part of a pipe when the city is doing sewer work nearby.

In imposing that mandate, city officials knew the cost to private residents could be steep. To help lessen the sting, they made property owners responsible for paying only a third of the total cost, up to a capped amount of $1,600.

This commitment also promises to be expensive. But when it comes to protecting children from the dangers of lead poisoning, some argue that cost should not be the first consideration.


Lessening the Dangers

Alderman Nik Kovac, 3rd District, said he thinks city officials have done well putting forward a plan that will lessen the dangers of lead exposure while not proving too costly in the end.

“We think we have a fair and reasonable proposal,” he said. “We’ll have to see how it plays out in the first year.”

Even as city officials work to make service line replacement affordable, their plans are giving rise to another big question: If the city is going to spend possibly hundreds of millions to fight lead poisoning, might that money not be better spent cleaning up the thousands of residences in the city where children are still exposed to lead paint?

Even as the Flint catastrophe has put much of the attention on lead service lines, local health officials are able to point to nary a case that seems to have arisen from tainted water. Separately, the greatest gains seen in the city’s decades-long battle against lead have come from money spent to mitigate the dangers of exposed lead paint in old houses and apartments.

The Milwaukee Health Department notes for instance that the number of local children who were shown to have 5 micrograms in their system for every 10 deciliters of blood—an amount considered dangerous—has decreased by 69.3% since 2003. Chief Medical Officer Geoffrey Swain said those results—which he called one of his department’s “biggest triumphs”—were achieved almost entirely through work to reduce exposure to lead paint.

Swain said the dangers of flaky, exposed lead-based paint are undeniable. Whenever health inspectors look into a case of lead poisoning, “we almost always find a lead paint hazard.”

What’s more, Swain said there is no chance that Milwaukee officials will find themselves someday dealing with a disaster like the one seen in Flint. Even if local officials had not got that terrible example of what to avoid, they would be extremely careful to use anti-corrosive chemicals to prevent lead from leaching into the water.

But Swain said Milwaukee cannot completely wash its hands of its water system. Lead can get into drinking water when service lines are unsettled, say, by work on nearby water mains. Simple precautions can greatly lessen the dangers—installing filters, letting tap water run for a few minutes before using it and turning on only the cold-water tap for drinking or cooking. But nothing guarantees everyone will take these steps.

For that reason, Swain said Milwaukee must ultimately replace its lead-service lines. But if he were in charge of the city’s lead-abatement efforts, he would still put the bulk of the money into the battle against lead paint.

“I feel like if it’s a zero-sum game, and we only have a certain amount of money to invest in lead-hazard remediation, I would invest 2-to-1 in paint remediation to water remediation,” he said.

Henken said residents will be able to get a better sense of what all this will cost in the fall, when the Milwaukee Water Works presents its formal budget plans. Henken said the Public Policy Forum’s “Beneath the Streets” report is meant in large part to remind local officials that lead service lines are just one piece of the local infrastructure puzzle. An even bigger goal, though, is to get them thinking about what paying for it all will mean for local residents.

“The big question is: What is going to be affordable here?” Henken said. “Do local governments have the capacity to raise the revenues to take care of their infrastructure or do we have to look at new funding sources?”


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