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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Activist wants to see Milwaukee speed up the removal of lead service lines

Robert Miranda is the founder of the fresh water for Life Coalition and the co-founder of the Get the Lead Out Coalition.
Susan Bence
Robert Miranda is the founder of the fresh water for Life Coalition and the co-founder of the Get the Lead Out Coalition.

A national summit on water is taking place in downtown Milwaukee this week. Researchers, utility representatives, business leaders and members of the public are all gathering to discuss issues from tap water to stormwater.

Robert Miranda is the founder of the Freshwater for Life Action Coalition and the co-founder of the Get The Lead Out Coalition. He is advocating that old, lead infrastructure needs to be removed more quickly. Milwaukee has tens of thousands of lead laterals delivering drinking water to homes, which can present major health risks, especially for children and pregnant people.

"What really drove me to look into the issue of water is during the campaign of Alderman Joe Davis, when he was running for mayor that was his platform," says Miranda, who worked for Davis' campaign.

Miranda notes he took an even deeper interest in water issues because of what happened with Camp Lejeune's toxic water resulting in individuals getting cancer. Other influential events were: Washington D.C. in 2004, where the infant mortality rate rose almost 200% because of lead-tainted water, and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

But what really struck a cord with Miranda was when former Milwaukee Health Commissioner Bevan Baker stated there was no lead in water. "And when I saw that, I just knew something had to be done," says Miranda.

As Miranda began to organize and push for a lead transparency resolution, which ultimately caused Bevan Baker to resign—he pushed the resolution that called for the city to stop partial lateral removals. As a result, Miranda was instrumental in forming the Water Quality Task Force.

READ: Task Force Takes On Milwaukee’s Lead Challenge

Now, Miranda says one of the things he is challenging is the narrative that lead paint is the primary cause of lead poisoning in Milwaukee and not lead in water. Miranda feels the city doesn't have enough data to support that claim.

"About two months ago, I asked the health department's environmental health deputy director Tyler Weber, to provide me with data regarding homes in the City of Milwaukee that have both issues, lead paint and lead pipes," says Miranda. "Two months ago, they didn't have that data."

Miranda continues: "He told me that they only had data for housing and that they had data for homes with lead pipes, but they never put the two data together."

Since Miranda's request, the Milwaukee Health Department combined the data. Miranda says it reveals 66,000 homes in the city have both lead service lines and lead paint issues. "And that's the priority we should focus on," says Miranda.

Miranda then contacted the health department and requested access to records that are initiated after a child is affected by lead. He was able to review the protocol followed when health department staff accessed the sources of lead in the homes of children who suffered high blood lead levels between the years 2014 and  2016.

He focused on those years because of the Milwaukee Water Works - 20 Year Main Break Trends, which shows the number of water main breaks each year between 1998 and 2017. It showed that in 2014 there were a record number of water mains breaks.

"These water mains led me to believe that we would see a significant increase in lead blood poisoning. Low and behold, we did," says Miranda. "When I asked for the open records reports, they told me that the number of reports for those years is astronomically high."

READ: Community Groups Take Action As Milwaukee Leaders Sort Out Childhood Lead Program

As the water main levels went down, the blood levels went down as well. Miranda says that fact supports his argument that water plays a role in the lead poisoning in the community.

Recently city officials, including environmental health deputy director Tyler Weber, water works superintendent Patrick Pauly and common council president Jose Perez met with Miranda. He's proposing the creation of a task force to help the city in an effort to establish a task force that will help the city find a way to speed up the process of removing the lead pipes.

"It's not only about the laterals that we have to address. It's also lead plumbing in the house, that landlords and homeowners need to also address," says Miranda.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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