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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Air Quality & Lead Among Environmental Concerns Of 2018

Susan Bence
Amani was one of the Milwaukee neighborhoods where residents expressed concern about lead contamination in 2018.

Environmental issues cascaded throughout the last year. Scientific updates about climate change and issues around safe drinking water barely scratch the surface of concerns affecting people’s lives and health. So, let’s review some of the complex environmental issues that fueled debate in 2018.

READ: How Did Wisconsin's Waters Fare In 2018


Among the environmental issues cascading throughout the last year in the Milwaukee area, the issue of lead was inescapable.

At the beginning of 2018, the public learned that the Milwaukee Health Department had grossly mismanaged its highly-touted childhood lead prevention program. It serves young children who test high for lead and seeks to remove lead paint in their home environments.

Health Commissioner Bevan Baker swiftly resigned. Not long after, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cut off funding for the program until the health department untangled the problems.

Nine months into 2018, the common council unanimously voted in Jeanette Kowalik as the new health commissioner.

Later in the fall, a determined Kowalik told a city committee that despite challenges her department is making progress.

Credit Susan Bence
Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik addressed the city's Steering & Rules Committee on Nov. 16, 2018.

“The program is working diligently to implement various work plans … to be organized on deadlines for us correcting issues. We have some key vacancies in the lead program that need to be filled and management, so we’re working on filling those. And, of course, we stated the last time I was here, we were going to create a lead division so that there would be a home environmental division director position that would be developed,” Kowalik added, “You know, that takes time.”

While Milwaukee leaders appear satisfied the new health commissioner is making headway, some residents remain frustrated.

READ: Milwaukee Health Department Headaches Seem Never-Ending

On a chilly December evening, 50 people gathered at 27th and Center Streets in the Amani neighborhood, including Danielle McClendon Williams.

“Where’s the fix? Who do we really hold responsible? Is it the doctors, is it the city leaders, is it the health department? Somebody didn't follow through – that should never happen,” Williams says.

Credit Susan Bence
Robert Penner with the Get Out The Lead Coalition on December 28, 2018 inside Milwaukee City Hall.

Then, on Dec. 28, members of two coalitions met with both health commissioner Kowalik and common council President Ashanti Hamilton. For months, the groups had been sounding the alarm about the threat posed by lead pipes that deliver city water from mains into tens of thousands of households. The groups say the issue is being downplayed by city leaders.

After their meeting, Robert Penner with the Get the Lead Out Coalition said, “I’m very happy with the presentation that occurred today. I’m very happy with the response of the common council president.

Hamilton told the coalitions he would work with them to formally present their concerns and data they have collected. The group anticipates meeting with the city’s Steering & Rules committee in January.

Air Quality

Concerns also welled up in 2018 around the health risks posed by the coal-burning power plant along Lake Michigan in Oak Creek.

In March, neighbors found black dust had blown off coal piles onto their cars and nearby playground equipment. Residents’ rage led to an unprecedented meeting with We Energies executives. Tom Metcalfe promised interim measures as the utility came up with a permanent dust-blowing-prevention fix.

READ: Health Risk Or Nuisance? Questions Surround Oak Creek Power Plant's Impact On Neighbors

“We’re going to lower, flatten the coal pile. We’re going to encrust it with an agent that will seal it tight that will create a 4-inch barrier on the top of the coal pile that's impermeable to rain and wind. We’re basically going to put it out of service until we get our long-term solution place,” Metcalfe added, "That’s going to take [some time]. I want you to be patient with us if you can be.”

In December, when members of the Clean Power Coalition gathered outside We Energies downtown Milwaukee headquarters, company spokesperson Brendan Conway said the utility followed through as promised.

Credit Susan Bence
Members of the Clean Energy Coalition called on We Energies to transition to clean energy.

“There’s a berm up, there’s trees. That coal pile is covered with some material and also water to make sure it doesn’t. We also have been testing, and people should know, no such thing since then,” Conway says.

He says the Oak Creek plant is one of the most efficient in the country.

Clean Power Coalition member Carl Lindner — who lives three miles from the power plant — says Conway is missing a critical bit of information.

“Fossil fuel is dirty and coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. We’re living in an area that has the worst air quality in Wisconsin,” Lindner says.

That’s why Lindner says, his group hand-delivered stockings full of coal and more than 1,700 signatures to We Energies.

“We are trying to urge them to transition to clean renewable energies as quickly as possible,” Lindner says.

It’s impossible to tie a neat ribbon around environmental issues in 2018. It was a year of push and pull on what many consider core components of our environment.

Have an environmental question you'd like WUWM's Susan Bence to investigate? Submit below.


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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