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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

EPA Holds Roundtable To Learn What Milwaukeeans Think About Lead In Water Regulations

Water out of faucet
Dmitry Naumov
Adobe Stock
The EPA is holding roundtables around the country to foster dialogue with communities affected by lead in drinking.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is holding a virtual Milwaukee roundtable in Wednesday from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. It’s holding roundtables around the country to foster dialogue with communities affected by lead in drinking water.

Part of the impetus is to get input on the federal Lead and Copper Rule.

Some observers hope more stringent regulations combined with federal funding will lead to the replacement of lead service lines that provide water to thousands of homes.

READ: Preventing Lead Poisoning In Milwaukee — League of Women Voters Advance Discussion

The federal Lead and Copper rule was enacted 30 years ago and hasn’t been updated since. It says if a municipality discovers more than 15 parts per billion of lead in drinking water being delivered to residents, the water utility must go through additional corrosion control steps.

Because no amount of lead is considered safe, especially for young children, community advocates are calling for a more stringent rule.

During a recent visit to Milwaukee, EPA Administrator Michael Regan addressed the problem. “We’re really focusing on our priorities to get our rulemaking up to speed so that we can protect public health,” he said.

READ: EPA Administrator Says Milwaukee Has A 'Winning Recipe' Marrying Jobs, Infrastructure & Natural Resources

Brenda Coley is one of the people closely watching the process. She’s co-executive director of Milwaukee Water Commons. Its mission is to empower residents to become advocates for freshwater and their right to it.

READ The Evolution Of Milwaukee Water Commons

Coley wants to see changes to the federal Lead and Copper Rule and plans to speak at the community roundtable.

More than 70,000 Milwaukee residences have lead service pipes, and Coley says many families have resorted to purchasing bottled water because they fear water coming out of the tap is unsafe.

“That is a huge issue and people who are most vulnerable are spending a lot of money for bottled water. You know that bottled water is not necessarily regulated and so the EPA putting in these standards, testing, these kinds of thing can help us restore faith back in our water and therefore in our public institutions.” She continues, “Because people don’t trust them.”

As for the next iteration of the Lead and Copper Rule, Coley hopes it sets an accelerated timetable to replace lead service pipes in communities around the country.

“We need to get this done in a generation. We can’t have an 11 year old to wait until she’s 60 to get the lead laterals change,” she says.

Coley’s voice is just one among a growing chorus of Milwaukeeans calling for the lines to be replaced.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has long maintained that lead paint presents a far greater threat to children than lead in drinking water.

During the recent visit by EPA Administrator Regan, Barrett said federal relief dollars could help with lead paint remediation. He said this could be a “generational opportunity” to also replace lead water lines, with potential funding from a huge federal infrastructure bill.

“Our hopes are really pinned to the infrastructure bill to address the lead pipe issue, which at its core is really an aging infrastructure issue which also has potential health ramifications,” Barrett said.

Barrett needs Milwaukee Common Council approval to spend relief dollars on lead paint remediation.

And the future of the infrastructure bill is uncertain. On Tuesday, a deal that senators struck with President Joe Biden was in jeopardy, as Republicans mounted resistance over ways to pay for it.

As for the Lead and Copper Rule, the public can comment on it until July 30.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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