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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Milwaukee Common Council Delays Vote on Mandate to Replace Lead Water Pipes

Milwaukee Water Works

UPDATE: Eight alderpersons moved to delay a vote and instead take up the proposed mandate at the common council's December meeting.  The ordinance would require property owners to replace lead pipes on their property, when a leak occurs on either their side or the city part of the line.

"We understand what's going on but if you ask one of your neighbors, I can almost guarantee they are unaware of what is  being proposed right now," 9th District representative Chantia Lewis added, "Having that grace period and allowing them that time to and ask questions,  I think that's just doing due diligence and not just saying this is something that we should do just because we have the authority to do it."

Lewis says she will hold public meetings in her district.

ORIGINAL STORY: Today the council will vote on an ordinance that requires property owners to replace pipes on their property, whenever there is a leak or problem on their side, or a leak in the city part of the line.

The City of Milwaukee counts 70,000 homes on its “at risk” list. These are structures built before 1951, when lead was commonly used for water pipes.

Before Flint showed lead leaching into families’ drinking water, cities like Milwaukee thought they were protecting their citizens by adding a compound called orthophosphate to the water as it leaves the water works.

The compound “coats” pipes, to keep pieces of lead from dislodging.

Now we know, that whenever workers disrupt service lines, to replace or repair them, lead levels can spike.

Last week, the city’s Finance & Personnel Committee discussed the proposal at length before advancing it.

Alderman Russell Stamper had loads of questions. He quizzed Department of Public Works commissioner Ghassan Korban

“During the emergency links, how many homes are affected, and in those houses being affected, how many houses are mandated during that emergency leak,” Stamper asked.

We’re talking about emergency as it pertains to a service line, not a water main. So typically if you a leak on a service line, the only impacted property is the property being served by that particular service line,” Ghassan Korban explained.

So, in other words, the entire pipe stretching from the main line to the individual home would be replaced.

City budget director Mark Nicolini says the cost could go up to $1600 and that bill could be paid over time. The actual cost could be three times higher, but Nicolini says the city is devising cost-share formula.

“We felt that the 1/3 share was reasonable. Keep in mind that the subsidy if you will, that 2/3s that the city would be providing will be, hopefully we’ll get some grants, Alderman Murphy suggested perhaps there would be some federal funding – but in the absence of that, the subsidy is most likely to come through a property tax-funded capital program,” Nicolini added, “A higher proportion would come from those with relatively higher valued properties.”

If a property owner doesn’t immediately agree to participate, he or she could face fines up to $1600 and the city could shut off water service.

However, supporters of the mandate hope the reduced cost formula will be enough to encourage compliance.

The mandate would go into effect right away in 2017.

DPW anticipates it will handle somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 service line emergencies. Those would result in full service line replacements.

One other component focuses on replacing lead lines feeding into licensed day cares.

Then in 2018, the City would launch what it’s calling a proactive full plan to work its way through all 70,000 lead lines.

Common council members have repeatedly stated they want to make sure the gargantuan challenge results in jobs in Milwaukee.

The Common Council convenes today at 9 am.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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