Jeramey Jannene

Biden Announces Milwaukee As New “Workforce Hub” For Lead Pipe Removal

Contractor capacity has long been issue limiting ability to remove lead pipes.

By - Apr 25th, 2024 11:05 am
Workers from Five Star Energy Services replace a lead service line on S. 12th St. in 2022. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Workers from Five Star Energy Services replace a lead service line on S. 12th St. in 2022. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee’s quest to replace all of its lead service lines within a decade will receive a boost Thursday from the federal government.

The city’s effort to replace the approximately 65,000 remaining lead service lines that connect properties with the water system has long had two key choke points: funding and finding people trained to do the work.

But a new initiative, scheduled to be announced by President Joe Biden, aims to help address the workforce issue. It builds on earlier federal funding awards to complete the actual work.

“The [Environmental Protection Agency], with support from the Department of Transportation, will stand up a Workforce Hub to ensure the city has the skilled workers needed to accomplish this ambitious lead pipes replacement project and invest in clean water infrastructure in Milwaukee,” says an announcement from the White House.

The designation is expected to include federal support for scaling up a workforce of people trained to perform the work, but a specific financial award is not referenced anywhere in the announcement. Biden is also expected to announce Philadelphia, Michigan and upstate New York as newly-designated workforce hubs with respective focuses on public infrastructure, electric vehicle manufacturing and chip manufacturing. The White House says information from the hubs will be transferred to other regions to expand their capacity.

In addition to the health benefits, the White House has placed great emphasis on the job creation component of lead pipe removal in repeated trips to Milwaukee.

Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Milwaukee in January 2022 to tour WRTP/BIG STEP‘s job training facility and tout the positive impact the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law would have on addressing lead pipe replacement. Then-White House infrastructure czar Mitch Landrieu toured a lead pipe replacement job site on the city’s South Side during a July 2022 visit to the city. Biden, in a December 2023 visit to the city, made a short stop at the office of Hero Plumbing and spoke with founder and owner Rashawn Spivey about his contracting work to remove lead service lines, commonly called laterals. Spivey also spoke with Harris during the 2022 visit.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson spoke at a January 2023 White House summit on Accelerating Lead Pipe Replacement and talked about Milwaukee’s push to accelerate its replacement cycle while addressing funding and workforce shortages. “We’re sort of a microcosm of the larger issue we have around the country,” he said. Many of the nine million remaining lead service lines in the U.S. are concentrated in the oldest cities, particularly in the Midwest.

Johnson came into office in late 2021 when the city was on a nearly 70-year pace to replace all of its lead laterals. But backed with an influx of federal funding, Johnson publicly announced a 20-year goal in June 2023. But later trimmed that goal to 10 years, but with a delayed start date based on forthcoming federal regulations.

The mayor was in Washington D.C. this week for a White House water summit where he joined the mayors of Detroit and Chicago in announcing the Great Lakes Lead Pipes Partnership. Detroit, according to a statement from Mayor Mike Duggan, is already on pace to replace 5,000 lead laterals this year.

Reaching the goal locally will require the Milwaukee Water Works to quintuple its historic pace of 1,000 lead-to-copper replacements per year. The city-owned utility is working with consulting firm CDM Smith to scale up its replacement program. A new dashboard shows progress through the end of February.

“Federal infrastructure funding provides a generational opportunity to create family-supporting union jobs while we eliminate lead hazards in our water system and improve water facilities,” said MWW Superintendent Patrick Pauly in a statement. “Water Works plans to nearly double the number of lead service line replacements this year over last year, and we’re tripling the number of apprentice workers on each contract. A significant water treatment improvement project is also underway at our south side purification plant.”

In 2023, the White House announced “workforce hubs” in Phoenix, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Augusta, Georgia as part of its Roadmap to Support Good Jobs effort.

Lead became a very public issue in Milwaukee starting in 2018 following revelations of failures within the Milwaukee Health Department to properly administer its childhood lead poisoning prevention program. City officials have repeatedly insisted that lead paint is the biggest danger, but that no amount of lead is safe.

Any house built before 1978, which accounts for most of the houses in Milwaukee, is likely to include lead paint. Abatement for paint-specific issues is addressed through a separate federal program.

The last lead service line in the city was believed to be installed in 1962. Interior plumbing, beyond the service line, is also likely to include lead. Individuals concerned about lead poisoning can learn more about lead-safe filters and testing on the MWW website. MWW also maintains a database of properties with known lead service lines.

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Categories: Politics

One thought on “Biden Announces Milwaukee As New “Workforce Hub” For Lead Pipe Removal”

  1. BigRed81 says:

    Getting Safe Water & Good Jobs is win-win solution.
    Many thanks to President Biden.

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