Following Flint Lead, Milwaukee Acts Next

Getting the lead out: Crews in Milwaukee are now scrambling to catch up on $500M in overdue water pipe repairs.

Better safe than sorry? Better late than never may be more accurate.

In the wake of wave after wave of revelations in Flint MI involving lead-poisoned public drinking water and potentially $1 billion in needed repairs, now comes news that the City of Milwaukee WI also has begun hurriedly removing all of its lead pipes – or laterals. The anticipated tab? Half a billion dollars.

Milwaukee Public Works data mapped by the Journal Sentinel.

But Milwaukee’s emergency actions represent just the latest crisis in a widening story involving more and more Rust Belt and Southern cities now facing similar dangers. This week alone, the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times published separate investigative reports that noted lead-tainted water found by U.S. EPA — but not relayed to the public by local officials — in Chicago, and towns in Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Mississippi. Researchers say these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg.

In Milwaukee, some 70,000 residences could be affected. Replacements involve properties constructed prior to 1951. Homes built since then are fitted with copper laterals. In all, replacement costs are expected to exceed $500 million, with the city and property owners splitting the expense.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Water Works has suspended five miles of water main replacement in older neighborhoods, where some 500 residences employ lead laterals to connect to the mains.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said the city treats water it draws from Lake Michigan to prevent lead corrosion and resulting contamination of drinking water, and that records from federally mandated tests confirm its water is safe to drink. However, main replacements involving lead laterals could cause contamination because laterals are cut during installation, according to city health officials.

Residue from repairs

“The release of lead-containing scale and sediment from lead service lines during even minor disturbances has been found to contaminate drinking water and present a health risk, especially to vulnerable populations such as children, pregnant women, and breast-feeding mothers,” wrote Bevan Baker, Milwaukee Health Commissioner, in a Jan. 25 letter to Kitty Rhoades, Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Carrie Lewis noted that current project suspensions were implemented after test results involving lead laterals demonstrated elevated levels of lead in tap water following main replacements in 2015.

Mayor Barrett likewise acknowledged that an ongoing initiative to replace 100-year-old water mains has prompted lead levels to rise above acceptable levels in some homes, then revert to normal.

“What we found in the 4-6-week period after we had replaced, that there were elevated lead levels – so we have contacted all of those homes,” Barrett told reporters. Residents also were advised to flush water pipes following main replacements.

Removal of lead laterals isn’t without precedent in Wisconsin. In 2001, the City of Madison’s Water Utility implemented a program then to extract 8,000 of them, providing a rebate of $1,000 to property owners who assumed responsibility for sections extending between residence and property line. Madison, the state capital, now has close to zero lead laterals in place.

Down the road, the same will hold true for all U.S. households if the EPA’s National Drinking Advisory Council has its way. Among other initiatives, it recently recommended removal of all lead service lines in every city and town across the U.S.