Wisconsin set to receive over $48M to replace lead pipes

Wisconsin’s efforts to eliminate lead piping are being supported by federal funding, with the state expected to receive $48 million next year to replace lead water supply lines.

The money is part of an $841 million Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act package to improve water infrastructure in the state.

According to the Public Service Commission, there were 173,052 leading service lines nationwide in 2020.

More than 40 percent of these were in Milwaukee. Since 2017, the city has replaced 4,952 pipelines, but limited funding and labor shortages have hampered progress.

“The bipartisan infrastructure bill will help accelerate the pace of this work so we can replace more leading service lines each year and expand our program beyond its current limitations,” Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said at a press conference Wednesday.

Johnson said no amount of lead in the body is safe. Even contact with small amounts can lead to serious health problems.

“Lead accumulates in the body over time and has serious negative health effects, especially for our youngest residents,” he said.

Children under the age of 6 who are exposed to lead are at greater risk of developing lifelong problems, including brain damage, slowed growth, difficulties in school and reduced IQ.

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“My son was hospitalized not once, but twice for lead poisoning,” said Deanna Branch, a member of the Coalition on Lead Emergency and a mother of two who had lead poisoning. “But I’m not alone. So many moms and parents are going through the same thing as me.”

She said the problem is particularly bad for low-income people and communities of color.

Branch’s children are two of many who have been harmed by lead. In a 2020 test of about 65,000 children under the age of 6 in the state, 3.3 percent tested above 5 micrograms per deciliter — an amount linked to decreased intelligence and behavioral difficulties. Milwaukee County tested about 5.5 percent above that level.

That funding is still not enough, said Robert Miranda, a steering committee member of the Get the Lead Out Coalition. In Milwaukee alone, the Public Service Commission estimates that it will cost $750 million to replace the city’s premier service lines. Miranda said it is crucial to act now as the problem is bound to get worse.

“These tubes have a life expectancy of 60 to 70 years,” he said. “The pipes that we have in the state, and in Milwaukee in particular, are twice past that use-by date, and as they age, the amount of particulate matter released increases and the risk to the community also increases.”

Some cities in the state have successfully eliminated lead pipelines. Madison successfully replaced all 8,000 known lines with copper tubing. In 2020, Green Bay completed a five-year project to remove more than 2,000 pipelines.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the amount of federal water infrastructure funding being spent on replacing lead pipe.

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