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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Is Milwaukee Any Closer to a Comprehensive Lead Pipe Replacement Plan?

Susan Bence
Milwaukee Public Radio
The task force chair called in police to stand by after a concerned citizen spoke out during the recommendation review process.

Update: The Water Quality Task Force reviewed it list of recommendations for the last time Friday morning. Task force member Ben Gramling of Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers suggested an addition, “That calls for the City to do all within its power to accelerate the replacement and/or rehabilitation of lead service lines within its jurisdiction.”  The task force agreed and shifted the resolution to the top of its list.

The city’s Steering and Rules Committee is next in line to review the task force report before it moves on to the full Common Council.

Original Story:

Milwaukee’s Water Quality Task Force met for the first time last September. Its members include representatives of the city’s health and public works departments, along with community health leaders and the Common Council. Alderman and committee chair Jim Bohl promised to dig deep into the complexities of lead pipes.

“Overturning every stone, we’re going to have a discussion that some of you are going to say 'Why are we raising this issue?' And that’s because there is no perfect panacea, so we have to address this comprehensivel.” Bohl added, “Probably (primary) in importance is the education.

It was months before the City released its Lead-Safe Milwaukee campaign. It folds in not only the risk of lead in water pipes but also in paint, and it urges parents to have their kids tested three times before the age of 3.

Almost in the next breath, the task force discovered the lead lateral challenge might be even more extensive than members thought.

For months, the City was saying that old lead pipes were delivering water to approximately 70,000 households – all build pre-1952, when lead pipes were routinely used.

Then in February, members appeared stunned when they learned workers might have continued installing lead pipes on properties until the early 1960s, even though the city had stopped a decade earlier.

“In 1951 we know in our portion, the utility portion – from the water main to the curbstop – all of the city portion was indeed copper. The question that still remains is does that guarantee that between then and 1962 that the private side in all of those homes were being constructed that they themselves placed only copper on their side of the service line.” Bohl added, “I don’t know that we know definitively.”

Amid the uncertainty about the numbers, the group released a draft of its recommendations – 14 suggestions.

They include educating residents about plumbing inside their home that might contain lead, and convincing more health providers to test infants and toddlers for lead levels.

What Kimberly Thomas-Britt wanted to read was a comprehensive plan to replace all lead service lines. It’s what she demanded at a task force listening session in early April.

“I’m here not only representing myself, there is 50 homes in my general neighborhood on 23rd Street,” Thomas-Britt said.

Kimberly Thomas-Britt expressed her concerns at the task force's first meeting in September, 2016.

Thomas-Britt could be a poster child for proactivity. She replaced the old lead pipes inside her home before she and the rest of Milwaukee learned lead pipes were outside her home too.

So, she set out to educate herself and her neighbors.

Thomas-Britt says they live in a sea of lead service pipes. “And when I go to them, and I tell, they say, ‘What is the point; what is the point in coming to talk with you.' I’m frustrated beyond belief,” she said.

Thomas-Britt shared thoughts at nearly every monthly meeting. “I actually submitted questions and comments. What happened to those documents? I don’t see those things incorporated in the recommendations,” she said.

A grassroots advocacy group called Milwaukee Water Commons also shared its ideas in writing.

Co-director Brenda Coley says they include: In the short-term – making sure the most vulnerable people get water filters and learn how to main them. And, in the long-term - replacing all lead pipes.

In the meantime, Coley says the city must make public education about lead a priority. “We thought putting out this paper would give them some information that would push them into more action. That’s what we were hoping. We sent it out and crickets,” she said.

Coley plans to reinforce the group’s points Friday morning at the Water Quality Task Force meeting – it’s last one.

Chairman Jim Bohl sees hope through new technology, such as lining existing pipes, rather than removing them. “It may be preliminary but I think this offers us with an alternative of going in to tearing out the service lines; it would certainly in my view…..have the potential of being far more cost effective which would allow us to tackle a much larger area ….and in that case really squeeze the timeline,” he aid.

Bohl promises to stay on top of the issue.

It will fall on the Common Council’s shoulders to move the task force recommendations from paper to action.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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