Milwaukee seeks to take part in expanded initiative to remove lead pipes

Lessons from a pilot program designed to speed lead pipe replacements are being expanded to 200 communities across the country, including Wisconsin's largest city.

Wisconsin is among four states working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on an initiative to speed lead pipe removal in 40 communities across the country. Wisconsin utilities have about 158,000 primary service lines, and the state has about 147,000 private service lines. Up to 229,000 pipes on the private side may contain or collect lead.

In Wisconsin, the state Department of Natural Resources and EPA are working with 10 communities where about 30 percent of the main service lines are located. These include Beloit, Frederic, Kenosha, Manitowoc, Oshkosh, Racine, Superior, Wausau, West Allis and Wisconsin Rapids.

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Steve Elmore, director of the DNR's Office of Drinking Water and Groundwater, told the Natural Resources Board in December that the agency has helped those communities identify lead pipes, replace them and apply for grants.

“We are excited and excited to partner with EPA to share lessons learned and advance the replacement of leading service lines,” Elmore told the board.

The expansion is part of the Get the Lead Out initiative, funded by the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress in 2021. Elmore said it will likely expand to underserved communities outside of Wisconsin, but the city of Milwaukee has expressed interest in participating.

Tom Iglinski, an engineering technician with the City of Milwaukee, holds up a replaced lead service line on June 29, 2021. Isaac Wasserman/Wisconsin Watch

Milwaukee delayed applying for the pilot program

Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Patrick Pauly said the city has applied to participate in the expanded initiative. Around 68,000 lead pipes still need to be replaced in the city, including pipes to residential and commercial properties.

When the pilot program was first introduced, Pauly said he didn't immediately take advantage of it because the city already had a good inventory of leading service lines. At that time, Pauly said the city had begun working on its plan to prioritize pipe replacements and officials were already familiar with applying for funds to replace lead pipes through the state's Safe Drinking Water Loan Program.

“We have expressed some interest in being part of the customer and community outreach program,” Pauly said. “But honestly, I think I probably hesitated too long and there were still 10 spots available. I volunteered for these 10 spots and they were already taken – and I take full responsibility – before I expressed interest in being a part of it.”

Still, Pauly said he believes the city is on solid ground when it comes to identifying and replacing lead pipes, adding that they have hired a consultant to handle public relations and customer service.

Robert Miranda, a steering committee member for the Get the Lead Out Coalition, said he would like to see more education about steps community members can take to reduce their lead exposure.

“I would like to see a major public education initiative from the state and city to provide homeowners, property owners and renters the most effective information to help them take the kinds of precautions they need.” “We need to prevent this from happening as much lead as possible gets into their water,” Miranda said.

A lead pipe on the groundLead water pipes can be seen pulled under the street in Newark, New Jersey on Thursday, October 21, 2021. On Tuesday, March 8, 2022, the Biden Administration issued guidance to states to ensure that the largest-ever investment in water infrastructure does not ignore disadvantaged communities that are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards such as pollution. Seth Wenig/AP Photo

Miranda said he also wants to see more assistance for property owners in removing lead pipes and wiring from their homes.

The city has complied with federal regulations for lead in drinking water, and Milwaukee Water Works has added orthophosphate to its treatment process to reduce lead levels. However, homes and properties in the city may still have lead pipes or fixtures.

Pauly said water testing this year showed the vast majority of samples had lead levels of 5.2 parts per billion, well below the current legal limit of 15 parts per billion. However, there is no safe level of lead. He said they are warning people that the longer the water stays in the pipe, the risk of lead getting into the water increases.

“We strongly recommend that the faucet is open for three minutes and the water flushes,” Pauly said. “After three minutes, our data consistently shows that either no lead was detected in the water or the lead content is very, very low.”

Over the past seven years, the city has systematically rehabilitated lead pipes and removed approximately 6,400 lead pipes. Milwaukee Water Works plans to remove about 2,200 pipes this year in an effort to eliminate all lead service lines in the city within 20 years. However, Milwaukee would have to accelerate the pace of their replacement under a new rule proposed by the EPA that would require most municipalities to remove these lines within 10 years.

Across Wisconsin, it can cost up to $1 billion to replace private utilities, not including the cost of removing tens of thousands of utilities.

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