What Does Milwaukee’s Lead Service Line Replacement Mandate Mean?

Mar 7, 2019

It’s been more than two years since Milwaukee’s lead service line replacement mandate went into effect. Yet questions persist and priorities are questioned.

READ: Milwaukee Common Council approves Lead Water Pipe Replacement Ordinance

Wednesday during the city’s Public Works Committee, Ald. Bob Bauman was looking for answers.

“Under what circumstances the city will mandate a lead service line replacement by the private property owner. We’ve got to line all of that up so we’re clear on what the program provides, what the public can expect,” Bauman says.

There are at least 70,000 Milwaukee households in which city water is delivered through lead pipes. In response to concerns about the risks of contamination, especially of young children, the city mandate was created.

The rule applies to homeowners — if either their side or the city side of the lead lateral leaks. Child care centers and private schools are also required to replace their lead service lines.

The property owners pay to replace their side, while the city handles its. To soften the financial burden, property owners pay no more than $1,600 and can spread payments over 10 years.

During the committee meeting, confusion was swirling around a clause that applies to private pipes that are "disturbed."

Milwaukee Water Works Commissioner Karen Dettmer explains that disturbances — although rare — usually happen during bone-chilling weather, when service lines freeze.

“Milwaukee Water Works came out and had to thaw those by inserting probes into that service line. We were very concerned about the orthophosphate coating that’s interior to that service line,” Dettmer says.

The Water Works adds phosphate to Milwaukee water to create that orthophosphate coating and hold lead in place.

Frozen pipes that Dettmer says have to be probed are folded into the replacement program, along with pipes disturbed when crews repair a leaking water main.

“That would go into the program. That would be very few cases. The pipe might be 1 or 2 feet from the leaky main,” Dettmer says.

Ald. Milele Coggs would like to find a way to fold more households into the program — people who want to get rid of lead but don’t have a leaky pipe. But those homeowners are not eligible for the mandate’s financial perks.

Coggs has one family in particular in mind.

"There's a lot of considerations that we have to sort out, but again the whole point from our perspective is affordable, safe housing in general, so we would have to look at the whole property, not just the lead service line," says Jeanette Kowalik, Commissioner of Health.

“There was a case in my district where a child under the age of 6 had tested high for lead and their water also had lead. And the family wanted to get into the program and were told they did not qualify,” she says.

While Dettmer, who's with the Water Works, says she’s looking for ways to widen the program’s reach to families impacted by lead poisoning, Public Health Department Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik's response was more circumspect.

She says paint is the primary source of lead poisoning.

"There’s a lot of considerations that we have to sort out there but the whole point from our perspective is affordable, safe housing in general, so we would have to look at the whole property, not just the lead service line," Kowalik says. 

Coggs wants the departments responsible for Milwaukee water, infrastructure and public health to come up with a comprehensive plan, "because right now, if citizens ask us what the plan is with lead laterals, all we know is what we’ve budgeted for one year."

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