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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Listen MKE: Milwaukee City Leaders Respond To Lead Crisis

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(From top left clockwise) WUWM's Susan Bence, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Talis Shelbourne, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Karen Dettmer and Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson.

WUWM has been partnering with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee PBS and the Milwaukee Public Library on an initiative called Listen MKE. Its goal: help north side residents get the information they want and need.

Milwaukee is just beginning to emerge from the pandemic's grip, but long before COVID-19, some residents and advocates had been raising concerns about an ongoing public health threat — childhood lead contamination from old water pipes and chipping paint. Now federal funds may be available to help fix the issue.

WUWM environmental reporter Susan Bence and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's investigative solutions reporter Talis Shelbourne spoke with Milwaukee leaders on how they plan to address the city's lead issue. Guests include Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Karen Dettmer and Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson.

Mayor Tom Barrett says that lead exposure in Milwaukee come from two distinct issues: older housing and outdated infrastructure. He says when it comes to water infrastructure, Milwaukee's main water lines do not have lead in them but individual lines that connect the main to a house or other buildings do. These pipes are called laterals and can expose the residents of the building to lead if the pipes contain lead.

"We don't have lead in our water, we have lead laterals that we're very, very concerned about but I actually consider this an aging infrastructure issue as much as a lead issue," he says.

When it comes to funding the replacement of lead laterals, Barrett points to President Joe Biden's proposed infrastructure bill, which would completely fund the replacement of lead service lines. He says then other federal funds could be used towards addressing lead paint in homes.

"The infrastructure bill is likely to contain money for lead laterals, for lead lateral replacement," he says. "I haven't seen that in the Republicans counterproposal but I believe that my conversations with Sen. Baldwin and other people in Washington who are involved in this, they feel that the final bill, the infrastructure bill will contain a significant investment in lead infrastructure replacement."

Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Karen Dettmer says that Milwaukee has already applied for state funds to go towards lead lateral replacement and that federal funds would help not just Milwaukee but communities across Wisconsin dealing with lead pipes. She says that the effort isn't just about keeping people healthy, but also about creating jobs.

"We need to be very purposeful with how we are building our workforce, making sure that we are training people in our community that need these jobs," she says.

Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson says as the department is able to shift some focus off of the pandemic, her focus is on expanding efforts to prevent lead exposure. She says in the past, the health department has just focused on replacing lead paint and case management of children exposed to high levels of lead.

"We're really in this space where it's an opportunity for us to think much more broadly and holistically about what a comprehensive lead abatement program and sort of how do we address lead as a health department," she says.

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