$750 Million to Replace Lead Pipes
Solutions to city's lead laterals expensive and not simple, council members find.
The Milwaukee Common Council continues to dig deeper into lead poisoning. What started last week with a four-plus hour debate on lead paint and the failings of the Health Department has now shifted focus to examining lead pipes buried deep underground.
The council’s Public Works Committee held a two-hour long hearing on three separate resolutions Wednesday morning, but ultimately held all the of them in the face of increasingly conflicting opinions on what to do. The solutions are not simple, they learned and even should the city spend the unimaginable figure of $750 million — the estimated cost of replacing all lead laterals — there would be still problems with lead in the water.
At one point, things began to seem so dire that after learning that it might be effectively impossible to get all of the lead out of water, a stunned Alderman Robert Bauman said: “That’s a good headline, a bottle of water has lead in it.” Bauman was referring to fact that commercially bottled water is allowed by the Food & Drug Administration to have up to five parts per billion.
The hearing centered around a presentation by Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Jennifer Gonda that examined the city-owned water utility’s progress in replacing as many of the estimated 70,000 lead laterals as their current budget allows.
Gonda told the committee that the city currently has identified 77,585 lead service lines, roughly 46 percent of all the 169,816 service lines in the city. The lateral pipes connect properties to water mains and are owned by the city until they reach the property line. The split ownership structure complicates their replacement, with the city facing substantial legal issues in using city funds to replace privately-owned pipes.
Gonda reported that in 2017 the utility replaced 610 lead laterals. Of those, 432 were mandatory replacements because of leaks, 144 were at child care centers, 10 were owner-initiated, 24 were related to water main replacement or other utility work. This year 27 laterals have been replaced, out of an 800 lateral target. Through a variety of funding sources, the city invested $6.6 million on lateral replacement in 2017 and has an estimated 2018 investment of $8.8 million. Gonda is planning to build capacity and funding within the utility to expand the annual replacement level to 1,200 by 2020.
The replacement work is moving slowly, which has drawn the ire of a handful of council members, but is still a marked improvement from the city’s actions just a few years ago. The city has gone from patching broken laterals to mandating their entire replacement. A troubling step occurred for a period in the middle according to Ald. Jim Bohl, the council’s resident water expert.
Bohl told the council that the city’s 2016 practice of replacing only the public portion with copper and leaving the privately-owned lead half of the lateral causes a substantial increase in lead leaching because of a reaction between the metals. The city replaced 330 laterals in 2016, with only 14 property owners electing to take the extra expense of replacing the entire pipe. One of those 14 was Bauman, who noted that the utility strongly urged him to undergo the cost of full replacement at his home in January 2016.
The city enacted a full replacement mandate, championed by Bohl, and an accompanying subsidy in December 2016 to encourage homeowners to replace their half of the lateral, with the city paying much of the cost and charging the owner $1,600, which can be paid over a ten-year period.
Department of Public Works Commissioner Ghassan Korban defended the 2016 practice of simply replacing the city’s half of the lateral, saying it was better than simply patching the pipe. Ald. Nik Kovac summarized the issue in stating: “what we did in 2016 was better than what we did in 2015, but not as good as what we’re doing now.”
Is Milwaukee Worse Than Flint?
Multiple city officials and committee members took the chance to note that lead levels seen in Milwaukee are many orders pf magnitude less than those seen in Flint, Michigan. The highest water test on record in Milwaukee found 130 parts-per-billion, a devastatingly-high level, but far below the over 5,000 ppb results in Flint water in recent years that came after the city switched their water source. A level over 5,000 is considered “toxic waste” by the EPA.
According to Korban, Milwaukee does not qualify for the over $100 million in aid Flint has received because of the difference in levels. The city’s testing has found it in compliance with federal guidelines of 15 ppb, although far from where many city officials would like to see it.
Milwaukee maintains its compliance by treating its water with orthophosphate according to Gonda. The phosphorus treatment is designed to keep lead from leaching out from the pipes as best as possible. The city began the treatment in 1996.
Lead at Child Care Centers
The relatively low number of child care centers that are opting to replace their lead laterals drew the ire of many council members. Alderman Michael Murphy expressed disbelief that out of the 385 facilities with lead service lines only 144 responded to a series of letters warning them of the dangers of lead poisoning, and offering all costs to be borne by the city. “There are a number of daycare centers,” Bohl complained, “turning a blind eye to this issue. At some point, someone ought to be calling them out publicly and alerting parents.”
Ald. Milele A. Coggs and Murphy pushed the City Attorney’s office to offer an opinion as soon as possible on legal methods for compelling the centers to accept the free lateral replacement. The facilities, which are exclusively licensed by the state, are required to abate issues with lead paint.
Murphy and others noted that there are numerous solutions to temporary water storage to avoid the one-day downtime associated with lateral replacement and that loss of business is not a reason for not acting. According to Gonda, 100 child care centers are already scheduled to undergo replacement work this year.
Hope on the Horizon
A recently passed state bill might allow the city to rapidly ramp up their replacement program. City lobbyist Brenda Wood told the committee that recently passed legislation would allow the water utility to increase the rates of residential customers to pay for 50 percent of the cost of replacing their laterals.
“Theoretically if this becomes effective, we have the ability to go out and borrow $50 million, amortize that over our rate base and invest $50 million instead of $6 or $8 million?” Bauman asked. Yes, according to Wood, although the legislation was originally two pages and has since been expanded with amendments because of heavy lobbying from the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce association and others.
“We’ll want to know who on the record rejected paying for abating lead poisoning for the children of Milwaukee,” said Bauman before singling out MillerCoors. Multiple sources within City Hall told Urban Milwaukee the company opposed the measure in April 2017. The company declined to comment at the time.
A Waste of Money?
“It is vitally important we better understand this issue than we’re getting at right now,” said Bohl.
While replacing all of the lead laterals seems on its face to be a simple, but expensive solution, things just aren’t that straightforward. Bohl raised the alarm that based on multiple studies, even homes without lead laterals routinely test positive for elevated lead levels in water.
Where does the lead come from? The primary culprit is lead pipes within the home, but beyond that lead solder, fixtures and faucets contribute. Recalling a study he had read about Madison, which is one of the few American cities to replace all of their lead laterals, Bohl noted the city has seen elevated lead levels in water in 38 percent of tested homes.
Bohl noted locally that Milwaukee Public Schools is already proving this unfortunate reality. With not a single lead lateral in any of the 150-plus MPS facilities, over 1,500 faucets showed elevated lead levels.
So is spending at least $750 million on lead lateral replacement a smart thing to do? Not according to Bohl. The city could more effectively abate the issue by getting lead water filters into homes.
The city now provides filters at no charge when nearby utility work might disrupt lead pipes.In addition, households with children under six or pregnant mothers are eligible for a free filter. Gonda said the utility was updating all of its literature to recommend the filters for all homes with children under six or pregnant mothers, even if they didn’t have a lead service line.
Korban said that another potential measure is pipe-lining technology. He noted a number of companies are testing prototypes that could prevent lead from getting into the water without the need to replace all of the piping infrastructure. Such systems are being put in place in Europe according to Korban.
Ald. Robert Donovan asked why the city can’t start installing such a system here, with Korban stating that the systems are not approved for use in the United States.
“Funny you should mention that, because Chicago has 480,000 lead service lines and has no intention of digging them up, they intend to do the lining process,” said Bauman.
Bauman said it was Bohl’s dissenting view on lateral replacement, as well input from others that led him to suggesting the committee hold off on approving any new lead replacement mandates.
The committee unanimously moved to hold the measures and is likely to revisit them at its February 14th meeting.
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