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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

City Leaders Struggle with Solutions to Milwaukee's Lead Crisis

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Thursday morning, the Public Safety and Health Committee rejected naming Paul Nannis as Milwaukee's interim Commissioner of Health. The vote was 3 against, 1 abstention and 1 in favor.

Mayor Tom Barrett proposed Nannis for a 120-day interim position as Milwaukee carries out a national search for former health commissioner Bevan Baker's replacement.

The health department is due to provide a status report on its lead program to the Mayor and Common Council next Monday, January 29.

Original story: 

“As we get more information, the need for more information seems to arise," Ald. Bob Baumann said after the Public Works Committee devoted a chunk of its Wednesday meeting to the issue of lead in water.

Ald. Jim Bohl, who has done a lot of digging into the complexities of lead in water, told the Committee: “It is really and vitally important that we understand this issue better than what we’re even getting at right now."

Some people want all lead service lines, those are the pipes that feed city water from the main to homes, to be replaced.

With an inventory of 70,000 plus pipes, committee member Ald. Nick Kovac said just doing the math tells you Milwaukee faces a century-long replacement process. "We’re doing better than we used to, but at this pace we’re still 100 years away, more than (that),” he said.

Bohl asked Kovac and his fellow Public Works Committee members to shift gears. “What I want to prescribe driving us in a very different direction than where we’re frankly going with our current policy.”

He said eliminating lead from pipes outside homes doesn’t eliminate every risk - lead can lurk inside homes, sometimes in pipes, solder, even fixtures.

Referring to findings from a 2008 study carried out by the EPA and American Water Works Association, Bohl noted, “What they (found) is close to about 40 percent of the lead on average in homes – some are going to be higher, some are going to be lower - was lead that was derived from interior sources."

He said he's putting together a white paper that will include strategies beyond filters and pipe replacement.

Department of Public Works Commissioner Ghassan Korban told the committee it’s just a matter of time before technology catches up the problem. “It’s going to come down to an approved lining process that would go all the way from the main to the faucet, creating a permanent barrier between whatever pipe you have and the water."

Some people want action now, such as making sure households those at highest risk – young children and pregnant women – have water filter and devising a comprehensive plan for lead service line replacement.

"The cause of the lead in the water is complex. It may be pipes, it may solder, it may be pipes inside your house. Before we start spending vast sums of money, we need to make sure we're spending it in a smart way that fixes the problem at the least cost." - Ald. Bob Baumann

During the meeting, Ald. Tony Zielinski waited his turn to introduce a resolution that would direct the water works commissioner to lay out the costs of replacing all of the city’s lead laterals

He was not pleased when Committee Chair Bob Baumann decided to put all amendments on hold. “Wait!" Zielinski said, "There’s a sense of urgency here in this community, we don’t have time to keep waiting month after month. There’s people being harmed right now."

While Baumann insisted the city is not dragging its feet to address the lead in water challenge, he wanted to see the both the unwieldy problem and potential solutions laid out before the city starts spending hundreds of millions of dollars.

“If replacing 75,000 lead service laterals at three quarters of a billion dollars, a good portion of which will fall on private property owners, he said. "If that’s really going to fix the problem for good, maybe we do explore that, but if it turns out there’s still lead in water coming in the homes…..I think we’ll look pretty silly and taxpayers will be pretty angry."

Baumann said he plans to look at Ald Jim Bohl’s research before recommending next steps.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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