Task Force Takes On Milwaukee’s Lead Challenge

Sep 16, 2016

The Common Council is responding to the city’s deteriorating water infrastructure by creating a task force to examine the daunting challenges.

The Water Quality Task Force met for the first time Friday morning.

Its chair, Alderman Jim Bohl, says he doesn’t intend to leave any source of lead contamination unturned. His strategy includes looking at national research.

“The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority claims that in extreme cases older faucets can contribute can contribute up to 1/3 of the lead in water that has been sitting in the pipes for several hours with the remainder coming from lead solder joints and in copper pipes or lead service lines. And I don’t want to lose sight on that; if we’re going to actually going to tackle this and remove as much risk as far as we can, we need to look at all sources,” Bohl says.

Milwaukee Commissioner of Health Bevan Baker says reaching those at highest risk - young children - is critical.

“And the state has provided some funding which will go toward what we deem to be the highest priority and that’s day cares and childcare centers. So that we can do first on the list of a million things to do, the thing we know to be most valid; if there are day cares and childcare centers where there are lead service lines, let’s take every available dollar and go upstream and remove those,” Baker says.

Regarding older children, Baker says Milwaukee Public Schools is in the process of testing its tap and bubbler water. And he says private and charter schools started calling his office immediately when Flint Michigan’s lead crisis exploded in the press.

“And we have given them the same guidance we’ve given the District. We’ve referred them to area certified water testing entities that would do that. As they have an obligation to their parents, and their boards are pushing them to do that,” Baker says.

Parents are not only worried about the water their kids drink at school – but also what’s coming out of their faucets at home, according to Task force member Ben Gramling.

He works for the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, and says people deserve answers.

“They at the very least, they have questions if not fears. I think as part of the long-term game plan, or the development of one, we should also be looking at the expansion of laboratory capacities here locally and looking to make testing capacities and more accessible to people that want them,” Gramling says.

Milwaukee Water Works superintendent Carrie Lewis talks with Milwaukee resident Kimberly Thomas-Britt's concerns.
Credit Susan Bence

Milwaukee is figuring out what its plan will be fostering the replacement of all lead pipes on people’s properties.

Robert Miranda, spokesperson for Freshwater for Life Action Coalition, says the job could take place, in some cases, when city crews go out to repair a broken water main.

He says they should replace the lead laterals leading to nearby homes, at the same time.

“We know in the winter time we see a lot more leaking going on in the lines, when you attempt to begin that process then. We do not agree that partial service line removal should be done even during emergencies, or when there’s leaking going on. If you’re going to do something, remove the entire line,” Miranda says.

Eighty-year-old Avis Wright says she lives in the 53210 neighborhood and intended to listen to what the task force had to say Friday, but decided to step forward.

She owns her home of 46 years, and worries what to do about the lead lateral that connects her to city water.

“I do have yellow water that was coming out of my faucet, so I stopped completely using it for drinking, but we do use it for showering and other things. But that’s my concern. Financincially I’m not able – they were saying we might have to do it ourselves – but I’m not aable to do that. I am retired and I’m just not able to put any pipes in, you know. I I just wonder, what can I do,” Wright says.

Task Force chair Jim Bohl says, given time, the task force hopes to address Wright’s delimma. For now, “The best thing that I think the Water Works and other administration is going to say is to ensure that you are flushing your pipes thoroughly particularly if there is any period of stagnation.

The task force will meet again on October 14.

In the meantime, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett will be submitting his city budget. Bohl believes it will outline tangible steps in untangling this public health dilemma.