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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Long Road Ahead To Solve Milwaukee’s Lead Pipe Challenge

"The best way to know if children have been exposed to lead is to have them tested, and to identify and reduce any risks where they exist," Pediatrician Heather Paradis at last week's awareness campaign launch.

The City of Milwaukee faces the daunting challenge of replacing the lead pipes that deliver drinking water to 70,000 older homes. The task will stretch over years and comes at a mind-numbing cost.

This morning at City Hall, Milwaukee’s Water Quality Task Force will discuss its next steps.

The Common Council formed the group last September, after Mayor Tom Barrett unexpectedly recommended that families living in homes built before 1951 install water filters, to shield young children and pregnant women from possible lead exposure.

In the meantime, last month, workers began rolling out Milwaukee’s lead pipe replacement program.

Whenever a lateral ruptures, workers replace the lead water pipe that leads into the property.

The owners pay a maximum of $1600, and can spread those payments over 10 years, on their property tax bills.

Ghassan Korban is commissioner of the Department of Public Works.

“I believe we’ve encountered three situations where we’ve had a leak in the service line and we have reached out to the property owners and three of them have been replaced,” Korban says.

Korban says several property owners did NOT respond, but says he anticipated challenges early in the program.

“So we’ve done our portion as we have committed and we provided water through a hose to the property bypassing the existing lead service,” Korban says

The new city ordinance contains a fine for unresponsive homeowners, but Korban says he doesn’t want to resort to financial punishment.

“We’ve created enough incentives in terms of financing, limiting the cost to property owners to motivate them to participate and at the end of the day do the right thing long-term and get rid of the service line, so we have not even remotely considered penalties and all that – no,” Korban says.

As Korban’s crews continue to work out communication kinks, the city hopes its new campaign - the Lead Safe Milwaukee Initiative will take hold.

Mayor Barrett says the three-minute video and printed materials target parents with steps they can take to reduce the risks of lead, not only in water, but also in soil and old paint.

“it’s a very friendly reminder to parents to do what they can to make sure their kids are safe. We are going to have this on buses. We’re going to have an internet presence and we’re going to be sending the brochure out with our water bills as well. So we’re trying to hit communication on different fronts,” Barrett says.

Forty county buses will carry the message for eight weeks – in both English and Spanish.

Pediatrician Heather Paradis with Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin says another key campaign element stresses the importance of testing children for lead – at least three time before they turn age three.

Paradis says there is no safe level of lead in a young child, and she sees the impact firsthand.

“Lead is essentially a silent epidemic so that children are often exposed when their brains are developing the most rapidly, during that period of language acquisition learning one and two years old when they’re having a lot of hand-to-mouth behavior. And it may not be until they get to school age when they start to exhibit subtle signs of behavioral issues,” Paradis adds, “In particular difficulty concentrating, learning, possibly aggression and actually may have some learning disability because of it.”

Earlier this winter, community partners distributed more than 2,000 water filters to Milwaukee families. Mayor Barrett says a fresh batch will arrive later this month.

Milwaukee is not the only Wisconsin community dealing with lead services lines. State Senator Robert Cowles of Green Bay is circulating a bill that would allow communities to provide more financial assistance to help homeowners replace dangerous laterals.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.