Wisconsin may remove lead pipes faster as EPA unveils aggressive new timeline

By Danielle Kaeding | Wisconsin Public Radio

Most communities across the country would need to replace lead pipes within the next decade. That’s according to a proposal announced Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency estimates there are 341,000 lead pipes in Wisconsin.

The EPA wants to tighten standards after the Trump administration overhauled the agency’s lead and copper rule, which first took effect in 1991. The agency’s plan calls for lowering the limit that triggers action to combat lead pipes from 15 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion. Beyond that level, water systems would be required to install treatment or make changes to reduce lead in drinking water.

The changes would also require water utilities to locate lead pipes, improve drinking water sampling and provide filters to customers when systems far exceed lead limits.

Evan Feinauer, staff attorney for Clean Wisconsin, said the accelerated lead pipe replacement schedule is significant. He said it would take decades longer under the existing regime.

“This is what everyone has been demanding for a long time,” said Feinauer. “That it will be much more proactive and aggressive to get these service lines out of the ground.”

Lead in paint and dust is the primary source of lead pollution in Wisconsin, but water crises like the one in Flint, Michigan, have highlighted the ongoing problem with lead in drinking water. Lead exposure can damage the brain and kidneys, and children with lead poisoning may experience learning and behavioral problems. Despite the higher legal limits that trigger measures to combat lead in drinking water, there is no safe level of lead.

The lead crisis has hit communities of color in Wisconsin the hardest. Black children under six are four times more likely to test positive for lead poisoning than white children, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Black children have a lead poisoning rate of 6.5 percent. Lead poisoning rates are twice as high among Native American children, and Asian and Hispanic children also have higher rates than their white peers.

“With collaboration and targeted actions proposed today, EPA is fulfilling its mission to protect all Americans, especially communities of color, who are disproportionately harmed by lead in drinking water systems,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement.

Implementing the proposal is expected to cost states billions of dollars each year. The bipartisan infrastructure bill included $50 billion to improve drinking water and wastewater infrastructure and $15 billion to replace lead pipes.

According to the White House, about $370 million has been announced for Wisconsin under the infrastructure improvement bill, with about $129.5 million earmarked for lead pipe replacement.

In the state’s largest city, around 65,000 active lines need to be removed in Milwaukee. As part of ongoing efforts to replace lead pipes, the city is set to receive more than $30 million in funding through the state’s Safe Drinking Water Loan Program.

Milwaukee Water Works has replaced an average of about 1,000 pipes each year, with a goal of removing 1,200 lines this year. According to the company’s website, 1,016 lead pipes had been removed as of November. Brian Rothgery, a spokesman for Milwaukee Water Works, said the EPA’s proposed changes would require replacing 5,850 to 6,900 lead pipes per year on a three-year average.

Critics of the city say officials haven’t moved quickly enough to replace lead pipes, including Derek Beyer, a steering committee member of the Get the Lead Out Coalition in Milwaukee. Beyer argued that some city officials have tried to shift the focus on the primary source of lead exposure in homes and away from drinking water.

“Ultimately, this problem is hurting people – that is now recognized up to the presidential level,” Beyer said. “The debate going on in town hall about what is poisoning us more is somehow contentious for me. Now it’s a question of how quickly we can get rid of this harmful poison.”

Jeff Fleming, communications director for the mayor of Milwaukee, said the city has always focused on lead paint as a major factor in cases of lead poisoning among children. He found that in some neighborhoods with higher lead concentrations, lead poisoning rates are lower. Still, Fleming said any potential hazard should be addressed, adding that the city’s 20-year plan shortened the previous timeline for replacing lead pipes.

“Today’s new EPA rule will push the city to meet its goal of replacing critical utility lines even sooner,” Fleming said.

For Milwaukee, the problem is not a cost-effective solution, with lead pipe replacements estimated to cost up to $750 million. Feinauer noted that communities like Milwaukee often face budget constraints and logistical challenges. The rule provides flexibility for cities where lead pipe replacement may take longer.

Feinauer said the rule will hopefully provide the technical assistance and resources to get lead pipes out of the ground quickly. According to a recent report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum, more than 73,000 guide lines have been removed statewide since 1998. About half of them have been replaced in the last five years.

Cities like Madison, Green Bay and Stoughton have all removed their guidelines.

This story was produced by Wisconsin Public Radio and is republished with permission. The original story can be found here.

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