How Milwaukee Handled “Flint” Crisis
Were city officials asleep? Should they be doing more?
For decades, until the Flint crisis, the entire focus in America when it came to lead poisoning was on lead paint. And for good reason. The data on this was alarming: Nationwide an estimated 30 million homes had been built before lead paint was outlawed. In Milwaukee an estimated 146,000 homes fell into this category and one of ten children under age six tested by the city health department have elevated lead levels.
The City of Milwaukee Health Department has an ongoing Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention program that assesses homes believed to be a problem and, “nearly all have visible chipping, peeling or cracking lead paint in the child’s environment,” says Jodie Tabak, spokesperson for Mayor Tom Barrett.
“Contrary to what people think, it is not because children are eating paint chips, it’s because chipping, peeling and cracking paint gets ground up into household dust,” she notes. “This dust gets on toys, hands, and spread throughout a home.”
The city’s efforts to combat lead poisoning began under Mayor John Norquist, included efforts to secure federal funding to address the issue, and continued under Barrett. To date, the Barrett administration has spent more than $50 million on the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.
“This work has resulted in a 90 percent decline in elevated blood lead levels at 10 micrograms per deciliter since 1997,” Tabak notes, and “a 69.3 percent decline in elevated blood lead levels at five micrograms per deciliter since 2003.” (The Center for Disease Control had lowered what it considered the dangerous level for lead from 10 micrograms to five micrograms.) “Our goal is to drive down these rates even further.”
Lead in the water? It simply wasn’t a concern. Across the nation public health agencies “continued to assert that the government-owned lead pipes… pose an insignificant health risk,” Marc Edwards, an engineering professor with Virginia Tech University, told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Most of their energy, funding and attention was “focused on lead paint mitigation,” he noted.
“Up until Flint happened, I didn’t think much about water (as a contributor to lead poisoning) either,” said Dr. Susan Buchanan, director of the Great Lakes Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the University of Illinois-Chicago, in the same story.
Governments were actually cutting funding for water treatment. “The $100 million annual budget of the E.P.A.’s drinking water office has fallen 15 percent since 2006, and the office has lost more than a tenth of its staff,” the New York Times reported. “In 2013, the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators said federal officials had slashed drinking-water grants, 17 states had cut drinking-water budgets by more than a fifth, and 27 had cut spending on full-time employees.”
In the aftermath of Flint, it soon became clear the nation’s water systems had widespread problems. A USA Today investigation “identified almost 2,000 additional water systems spanning all 50 states where testing has shown excessive levels of lead contamination over the past four years.”
The story said an estimated 75 million homes in the country could be affected. “At greatest risk… are an estimated 7.3 million homes connected to their utility’s water mains by individual lead service lines — the pipe carrying water from the main under the street onto your property and into your home.” The water passes through what amounts to “a pure lead straw,” the ubiquitous Marc Edwards (who studied the water contamination in Flint) observed.
In Lake Mills, Wisconsin, the story noted, “EPA records show the utility serving water to 5,300 people failed lead tests in 2013, 2014 and again in 2015 with some readings several times the federal limit.”
In Wisconsin, funding for the state’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program had shrunk to “below optimal staffing,” as the WCIJ story found.
Even after the Flint crisis, state officials still seemed deaf to the problem. As the WCIJ story notes, a public health campaign by the state Department of Health Services on lead poisoning prevention “did not mention drinking water as a potential source of lead” and “a bill that would have lowered the level of lead poisoning that triggers an investigation and require that water, in addition to paint, be examined as a source died in the Legislature in 2016 without a hearing.”
Worse was the Walker administration’s allocation process for federal EPA money. The funding, in reaction to the Flint crisis, could be used to replace private lead lateral lines (typically the portion of the service line that runs under the homeowner’s property, which then connects to the publicly owned line). As the state’s largest and oldest city, Milwaukee has about 70,000 of the estimated 176,000 lead service lines in the state. That’s 40 percent of the state’s problem, yet the state’s proposed allocation would have given Milwaukee $750,000 or just 6.4 percent of the $11.8 million in EPA funding the state was distributing. I pointed out this problem in a story for Urban Milwaukee and the Barrett administration sent a letter protesting this to state officials.
A new formula, revised after public comments were received by the state, and after federal funding was increased, upped the city’s share of the money to about $2.6 million, a significant improvement, but still giving the city with 40 percent of the problem just 17.9 percent of the $14.5 million in federal funds intended to address the issue.
Unlike in Flint, Milwaukee’s water program was always in compliance with federal EPA rules. And even before the Flint crisis erupted city officials had begun (in 2015) testing what happens when the city’s older, leaking main lines are replaced and disconnected from lead laterals. The evidence showed the disruption caused a temporary (four to six week) increase in lead levels of water going into the home. This research, when coupled with the results in Flint, led Barrett to call a press conference in January 2016 alerting the community and announcing the city would suspend its water main replacement program.
Barrett and the Common Council have decided to use the $2.6 million in EPA money to replace lead laterals in licensed day care centers. In addition, the council approved (by a 12-3 vote) a Barrett plan to spend $3.9 million on a lead service line replacement program. Most of the money — $3.6 million — will pay the costs of replacing the city-owned portion of about 600 laterals in the coming year. (At this rate it would take decades to replace the city’s estimated 68,300 lead laterals.)
Meanwhile the city has put great emphasis on a program to provide filters to any homeowner with lead service lines. Edwards, a harsh critic of government failures like those in Flint, told Milwaukee Magazine he would allow his own children to drink water from “the most lead-contaminated city in the U.S.” so long as it had passed through one of these filters. It works even if the owner forgets to change the cartridge, he added: “I have never seen a case where the filters stop removing lead effectively.”
The city’s 2017 budget includes $150,000 for filters and Barrett has also secured $90,000 in donations from United Way and Aurora Health Care to help pay for more filters. The company Auqusana has also agreed to provide filters at a discounted rate.
Has the city done all it should?
Patricia McManus, President and CEO of the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin, gives the city a mixed grade: “I don’t think they hid the problem or ignored it, but they could have been more proactive. They have made a decent start (with the new city program), but I don’t think they’ve done all they can do. I think they could make more filters available.” (Tabak says more such efforts are ongoing.) And for lower income homeowners, McManus would like to see the city further reduce the cost for homeowners of replacing lead laterals.
The reality is there was a failure to address this issue by federal, state and local governments across the nation. But much of that was because of an emphasis on the still significant problem of lead paint. At this point, the spotlight has broadened to take in lead pipes and there are likely to be more studies and new efforts to address the issue. Indeed, the problem could make a worthy program for a new Republican president who says he wants to improve the nation’s infrastructure.