FLAC, Get the Lead Out Fight City Over Lead Posioning
Groups have a showdown with city officials over claims surrounding city's failure on lead poisoning, infant mortality.
Two of the leading groups critical of the city’s lead poisoning prevention efforts, the Freshwater for Life Action Coalition (FLAC) and Get the Lead Out (GTLO), had their day at City Hall Friday. The groups got to make their case and raise issues in a special meeting held before the Common Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee.
“We are at a point where we have to get some answers,” said committee chair Alderman Robert Donovan. “That’s the intent of the meeting today; to once and for all get to the bottom.”
The Milwaukee Health Department, GTLO and FLAC all agree that any amount of lead in children up to the age of 6 is too much, but disagree on the city’s lead prevention priorities. The department has concentrated its efforts on paint, dust and soil, while the groups are pushing for a much greater focus on water.
The groups’ concerns center around an area of W. North Ave. from N. 35th St. to N. 43rd St. and what they believe to be a failure to investigate a spike in infant mortality. According to a density map of infant mortality prepared by the Milwaukee Health Department, the groups contend that 40 to 49.99 infants died between 2012 and 2016 within a one-square-mile area centered on the stretch. They believe lead in water, from disruption of service lines and new homes that were connected to old, lead service lines, played a role.
“If that area was a bunch of timber wolves or rare booby birds that died, we would know more,” said FLAC spokesperson Robert Miranda. “The city failed to investigate what happened there so we could get an answer.”
But health department medical director Dr. Geoffrey R. Swain attributes the concentration to a misunderstanding of density maps. “There were not 40-49.99 infant deaths within one to two blocks on either side of a stretch of North Avenue in the 15th aldermanic district,” said Swain. “It’s just a really incorrect interpretation of density maps.”
Swain said specific locations are not revealed because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Colored density maps are used instead, giving incidents a one-square-mile area and aggregating the data. He said the area described by Thomas Welcenbach, who led the 45-minute joint presentation by the groups, represents only 20 percent of a square mile.
But after the meeting, Miranda said Swain misinterpreted the group’s presentation. He said the data still shows a large concentration of infant mortality. “The city failed to bring in the experts from the biological or epidemiological communities to investigate what happened there,” said Miranda in an interview with Urban Milwaukee. “I think that was a great opportunity for the city to really understand what’s really going on with the infant mortality issue. Our hypothesis is that water played a role in it.”
Miranda said his group will be canvassing homes in the area built since 1951, the year the city stopped using lead on the public side of a lateral. A lateral, which provides water to a property, is made up of a publicly-owned portion under the street and a privately-owned segment on private property. The city, according to Milwaukee Water Works superintendent Karen Dettmer, has “very good” records for which properties have lead laterals on the public side, but not for the private side.
The city banned the use of private-side lead laterals in 1962, but FLAC has repeatedly suggested a number of post-1951 homes built on the site of demolished properties simply reconnected to existing laterals. The city banned the practice in 1985 and inspects every new connection on the public side.
FLAC has advocated for replacing all of the lead laterals in the city, of which are there are more than 70,000. The effort, which could cost $750 million, is far from a silver bullet though. A study of Madison, which replaced all of its lead laterals, still shows 38 percent of homes testing positive for lead in their water. Copper plumbing was allowed to contain lead solder until 1986.
But the focus on lead in water is contrary to the health department’s primary abatement efforts. “We know that deteriorating lead-based paint is the primary source of lead exposure in children,” said commissioner Jeanette Kowalik. The new commissioner has drawn praise from the council and mayor for her work restoring the troubled childhood lead poisoning prevention program.
The Center for Disease Control estimates that 30 percent of lead poisoning nationwide is from lead in water. In response to a question from Ald. Michael Murphy, Miranda said: “In Milwaukee I believe that percentage is higher.” The city, which funds its lead abatement efforts primarily with federal funds, did not start testing water in homes of children with elevated blood levels until two years ago. Federal grants leveraged by the city do not pay for water tests. Miranda contends this is a major issue in the city’s efforts.
But both Murphy and Kowalik countered that aldermanic district data contradicts this assertion. “Poverty is a much bigger indicator,” said Murphy. The 14th aldermanic district, which includes all of Bay View and a handful of neighborhoods to the south and west, has the highest concentration of public lead laterals in the city. Yet, the 15th aldermanic district, which includes the W. North Ave. corridor at issue, has a childhood lead poisoning rate nearly four times the rate. FLAC leaders contend this is because the homes (and laterals) in the 15th district are older and there has been more disruption from construction.
Murphy stressed that the city must rely on science to make decisions on where to allocate its limited funds. “This is a matter of economics when it comes down to it, which is unfortunate,” said the alderman.
Donovan thanked the groups and myriad of city officials in the room for their reports. “This has been a very productive meeting. There are going to be some people that are satisfied. I suspect there are others that aren’t,” said the alderman. The retiring alderman still believes there are outstanding questions. “Probably the only way the city will get to the bottom of this in everyone’s mind is some kind of forensic audit of our operations over a good many years.”
While the question of the W. North Ave. corridor remains among FLAC and GTLO leadership, a number of other points were addressed.
- Questions over the city’s role as the owner of over 3,000 properties that could have lead laterals were answered by Deputy Commissioner of the Department of City Development Martha Brown. She said the city owns approximately 1,000 homes, acquired through property tax foreclosure, but that only 100 were occupied. Any homes built prior to 1962 cause the city to operate on the belief at least a partial lead lateral is present. “We inspect houses to identify visible lead hazards,” said Brown. She added that a packet of information on the dangers of lead, the use of filters and other safety measures is given to the tenants. “There is no evidence that the city ownership has an impact on the lead risk of any of those vulnerable populations,” she concluded.
- Brown also said the city’s Re-Invest in City Homes (RICH) program, which was suggested in an earlier meeting to be sending people into potentially lead-contaminated environments, has been used on six city-owned properties and has included lead abatement of the homes, including a new service line. “There is no truth to that assertion and I wanted to make sure that was on the record,” said Brown.
- Swain said a change to city-wide lead poisoning density maps, which Welcenbach said now downplay a widespread lead crisis, were made because of HIPAA concerns. Large areas of Bay View and the city’s East Side are not colored on city maps after a 2018 change because the instances of childhood lead poisoning fall below the map’s threshold of 10 cases per square mile. Welcenbach disagrees with the interpretation of HIPAA in this case, but a representative of FLAC and GTLO said the group doesn’t believe the city is doctoring the dataset.
If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits, all detailed here.
Related Legislation: File 181610
More about the Lead Crisis
- City Hall: 1,893 Lead Service Lines Replaced - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 17th, 2019
- City Hall: Council Protects Tenants Seeking Lead Hazard Remedies - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 11th, 2019
- Council approves ordinance protecting tenants in lead-exposure investigations - Ald. Jose Perez - Jul 10th, 2019
- City Hall: Board of Health Appointments Sail Through - Jeramey Jannene - Jun 27th, 2019
- Rep. Robyn Vining Condemns Removal of Lead Service Line Replacement from Budget - State Rep. Robyn Vining - May 15th, 2019
- City Hall: Who Can Get a Free Lead Filter? - Jeramey Jannene - Apr 25th, 2019
- Chisholm Confirms Health Department Probe - Edgar Mendez - Apr 24th, 2019
- Freshwater For Life Action Coalition (FLAC) & Get The Lead Out Coalition (GTLO) Support Letter To Milwaukee County District Attorney By Milwaukee Alderpersons - Freshwater For Life Action Coalition - Apr 23rd, 2019
- City Hall: DA Asked To Consider Charging City Officials - Jeramey Jannene - Apr 22nd, 2019
- Report Urges Action on Schools’ Drinking Water - Danielle Kaeding - Apr 12th, 2019
- A House Divided: Comments from State Rep Show the Current Chasm in Wisconsin - Ald. Michael Murphy - Apr 10th, 2019
- A statement from Alderman Terry L. Witkowski following the March 22 special Public Safety and Health Committee meeting - Ald. Terry Witkowski - Mar 22nd, 2019
- City Hall: FLAC, Get the Lead Out Fight City Over Lead Posioning - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 22nd, 2019
- Special meeting devoted to lead in water issues will feature city departments - Ald. Bob Donovan - Mar 20th, 2019
- City Hall: Council Approves Civilian Health Oversight Board - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 5th, 2019
- Marquette University to host Flint water crisis author Anna Clark - Marquette University - Jan 18th, 2019
- Lead-Free Homes a Priority for Kowalik - Corri Hess - Jan 17th, 2019
- Council approves legislation concerning the Milwaukee Health Department’s lead reporting processes and water filter distribution plans - Ald. Milele Coggs - Jan 15th, 2019
- Forum Examines Lead Poisoning Prevention - Abby Ng - Nov 30th, 2018
- City Hall: City’s Lead Program is Working Again - Jeramey Jannene - Nov 16th, 2018
- League of Women Voters – Nov. 17 Public Program Addressing Lead Issues: A Milwaukee Focus - League of Women Voters of Milwaukee County - Nov 5th, 2018
- Citizens deserve to hear from Bevan Baker in public proceeding - Ald. Tony Zielinski - Oct 22nd, 2018
- Milwaukee’s Young Children Need to Be the Focus - Ald. Mark Borkowski - Sep 24th, 2018
- City Hall: Baker To Testify Before Common Council - Jeramey Jannene - Sep 14th, 2018
- Warning Residents of Lead Dangers - Jenny Whidden - Jul 18th, 2018
- Governor Walker Administration Awards More Than $26 Million for Lead Service Line Replacement in 42 Wisconsin Communities - Gov. Scott Walker - Jul 18th, 2018
- Environmental Review of City of Milwaukee Project for the Safe Drinking Water Loan Program (SDWLP) - Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources - Jul 9th, 2018
- Environmental review of City of Milwaukee project for the Safe Drinking Water Loan Program (SDWLP) - Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources - Jun 26th, 2018
- Common Council approves full lead hazard review for city-owned properties - Ald. Jose Perez - May 8th, 2018
- Legislation mandates lead water lines replacement at child care facilities - Ald. Milele Coggs - Apr 26th, 2018
- Child Care Centers Still Have Lead Pipes - Edgar Mendez - Apr 23rd, 2018
- Legislation looks to local source for water infrastructure needs - Ald. Milele Coggs - Apr 4th, 2018
- ‘10thirtysix ’ to re-ring the alarm bell on milwaukee’s lead crisis - Milwaukee PBS - Mar 27th, 2018
- Chief of Staff Comment on FLAC - Patrick Curley - Mar 22nd, 2018
- Evers Demands Action on Wisconsin’s Drinking Water Crisis - Gov. Tony Evers - Mar 21st, 2018
- Op Ed: How City Should Solve Lead in Water - Noelle Chesley, Anne Dressel, John Berges, and Helen Meier - Mar 2nd, 2018
- Alderman Bohl: A better strategy is needed in dealing with lead laterals - Ald. Jim Bohl - Feb 26th, 2018
- City Hall: McManus Lays Out Three Priorities for Health Department - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 23rd, 2018
- Governor Walker Signs Leading on Lead Act into Law - Gov. Scott Walker - Feb 21st, 2018
- City Hall: Mayor Allows Interim Health Leader - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 15th, 2018
- City Hall: Will Mayor Confirm Health Commissioner? - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 14th, 2018
- City Hall: HUD Halts City Lead Treatment Program - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 12th, 2018
- From Dr. Patricia McManus: Comments clarified - Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton - Feb 9th, 2018
- Comments by newly appointed interim Health Department commissioner troubling - Ald. Michael Murphy - Feb 9th, 2018
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Council Appoints McManus Interim Health Leader - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 6th, 2018
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Barrett Withdraws Nannis Nomination - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 5th, 2018
- FLAC Calls on Common Council to Confirm Dr. Patricia McManus as Interim Health Commissioner - Freshwater For Life Action Coalition - Feb 3rd, 2018
- Silence is Complicity – If You See Something, Please Say Something - Ald. Milele Coggs - Feb 2nd, 2018
- Gag Order for Health Department Employees Lifted by Mayor - Ald. Bob Donovan - Feb 1st, 2018
- Resolution Aims to Take Down Milwaukee Health Department’s Restrictive Communication Policy - Ald. Tony Zielinski - Feb 1st, 2018
- Common Council Alerts At-Risk Populations of Lead Risks After City of Milwaukee Health Department Fails to Notify Public - Milwaukee Common Council - Jan 31st, 2018
- Key Details Missing from the Mayor’s Account of Lead Testing Crisis - Ald. Khalif Rainey - Jan 31st, 2018
- What We Really Need: Answers - Ald. Russell Stamper, II - Jan 31st, 2018
- The Administration has Lost the Common Council’s Confidence in Addressing the Lead Issue - Ald. Jose Perez - Jan 30th, 2018
- Eyes on Milwaukee: City Report Finds Health Dept. Problems - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 30th, 2018
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Council Could Reject Interim Health Leader - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 30th, 2018
- Aldermen Ask City Attorney for Legality of Paul Nannis’ position - Milwaukee Common Council - Jan 29th, 2018
- Eyes on Milwaukee: $750 Million to Replace Lead Pipes - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 24th, 2018
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Council Responds to Lead Crisis - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 23rd, 2018
- Legislation seeks lead service line replacement for city-owned properties - Ald. Bob Bauman - Jan 19th, 2018
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Council Grills Mayor, City Health Staff - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 17th, 2018
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Council Launches Health Dept. Probe - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 17th, 2018
- Resolution calls for Milwaukee Water to give public lead updates - Ald. Tony Zielinski - Jan 17th, 2018
- Commissioner Baker’s departure leaves us all with many, many questions - Ald. Bob Donovan - Jan 16th, 2018
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Barrett Ousts Bevan Baker Over Lead Fiasco - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 12th, 2018
- Health Department mistakes worsen city’s lead crisis - Ald. Mark Borkowski - Jan 12th, 2018
- Council set to act on Health Department crisis - Milwaukee Common Council - Jan 12th, 2018
- Freshwater For Life Action Coalition (FLAC) to Hold Press Conference After Announcement Of Firing Health Commissioner Bevan Baker - Freshwater For Life Action Coalition - Jan 12th, 2018
- Is City Dragging Feet on Lead Filters? - Jabril Faraj and Elliot Hughes - Jan 3rd, 2018
- Common Council Strengthens Lead Standards - Jabril Faraj - Dec 5th, 2017
- One Step Closer to Tackling Wisconsin’s Lead Crisis - State Sen. Chris Larson - Oct 31st, 2017
- Advocates Push City On Lead Pipes - Jabril Faraj - Oct 25th, 2017
- Lead Poisoning a “Public Health Crisis” - Jabril Faraj - Jul 19th, 2017
- National Water Expert Retracts Criticism of City Health Department - City of Milwaukee Health Department - Jul 14th, 2017
- Governor Walker Announces 35 Municipalities to Receive a Total of $13.8 Million to Remove Lead Service Lines - Gov. Scott Walker - Jun 28th, 2017
- Campaign Cash: WMC Opposes Lead Pipes Bill - Wisconsin Democracy Campaign - Apr 20th, 2017
- Op Ed: State Action Needed on Lead Pipes Problem - Chris Walker - Mar 12th, 2017
- Murphy’s Law: How Milwaukee Handled “Flint” Crisis - Bruce Murphy - Jan 19th, 2017
- Tainted Water: State’s Failures On Lead Pipes - Cara Lombardo and Dee J. Hall - Jan 15th, 2017
- Tainted Water: Lax Rules Expose Kids To Lead-Tainted Water - Cara Lombardo and Dee J. Hall - Dec 19th, 2016
- Tainted Water: DNR Program Replaces Lead Laterals - Cara Lombardo and Dee J. Hall - Dec 19th, 2016
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Council Approves Help For Lead Pipes - Jeramey Jannene - Dec 13th, 2016
- Tainted Water: DNR Delays on Lead Poisoning Issue - Cara Lombardo and Dee J. Hall - Dec 4th, 2016