How Far Has Milwaukee Come In Resolving Its Lead Water Crisis?

Sep 12, 2017

One year ago, Mayor Tom Barrett surprised Milwaukeeans when he advised residents living in houses built before 1951 to install water filters. That's the era when the pipes that carry water from mains to households were made of lead.

Barrett spoke out just after he had shared the stage with Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who helped bring national attention to the Flint, Michigan water crisis. As part of a panel on drinking water and aging infrastructure, Edwards had said filters have proven to be extremely effective:

“Even in Flint, where we had tens of thousands of parts per billion lead coming out of the tap. EPA took hundreds of samples from those worst-case homes and never found a case where more than 2 or 3 ppb was going through the filter. So the filters have worked in our lab, they’ve worked in the field….”

That compelled Barrett to make his statement. “I thought here’s an expert who says that these filters are amazingly effective and so I thought, I’m not going to keep that revelation a secret."

In early 2016, the city had sent letters to 70,000 households advising them to run their faucets a minimum of three minutes - if water had been sitting in the pipes for more than six hours - before using for cooking and drinking.

In November 2016, health department commissioner Bevan Baker and community partners announced a water filter program at Milwaukee City Hall.
Credit Susan Bence

And although that letter mentioned a water filtration system could add a layer of protection, Barrett’s September 2016 statement got the big splash - prompting the city to roll out a free filter distribution program two months later. Several community partners, including the United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County, raised $90,000 to buy filters for the city to hand out.

“We’ve already procured more than 2,000 of these filters and they’ll be evenly distributed from our two partners here – Sixteenth Street and Social Development Commission,” Milwaukee Health Department commissioner Bevan Baker said when he announced the program.

Later, according to a health department spokesperson, the dollars didn’t quite stretch that far and the agency had 1,725 filters with which to work.

Residents streamed into Koscuiszko Community Center to pick up water filters in December of 2016.
Credit Susan Bence

However, neither quantity was enough to meet demand. At one south side distribution location alone, supplies tapped out within an hour. One hundred people penciled their names onto a waiting list.

At the same November press event, commissioner Baker said a lead public awareness campaign would be unveiled in the coming weeks.

“We hope to role that out late November early December and that would be a media campaign to educate the public regarding this issue, so that is underway,” he said.

Three months passed before Mayor Barrett proudly unveiled Lead-Safe Milwaukee – including its 3-minute video.

Lead-Safe Milwaukee campaign
Credit City of Milwaukee Health Dept. & Milwaukee Water Works

“So you can see it’s a very friendly reminder to parents to do what they can to sure their kids are safe," he said. "We’re going to have this on buses, we’re going to have an internet presence and we’re going to send the brochure out with our water bills as well."

The message may be friendly, but critics found fault with the campaign from the get go. It not only outlines “safe” water, but also the hazards of lead paint and urges parents to have their young children tested.

Brenda Coley, with the group Milwaukee Water Commons, said the city is not approaching the lead in water situation as the public health crisis it is.

“I don’t think they’ve been much interested in letting the public know in a concise clear way, what the issue is; I don’t think that they’ve promoted enough the issue of filtration of a way to keep you and your family safe,” she said.

Some 10 months after Barrett’s announcement in July of 2017, criticism spilled over at a common council committee meeting.

Alderman Tony Zielinski proposed a resolution that would direct the health department to intensify its messaging. “They don’t go far enough to let the public know that water filtration devices are a better option than running cold water,” he said.

Later that day, the health department modified the website, placing the water filter message more prominently.

Zielinski also wanted lead testing recommendations to extend to age six. Currently the standard is three times by age three. Health commissioner Bevan Baker stood by his department’s policies:

“We have made recommendations that are consistent with national and state and the medical communities’ most current evidence-based practices. We far outpace many cities in the nation by having some of the most stringent rules when it comes to lead hazards.”

So, how far has Milwaukee come in resolving its lead water crisis?

Well, the Public Safety and Health Committee is due to take up the topic at its meeting on Thursday.

(NOTE: Since the story aired, Ald. Zielinski's resolution was removed from the meeting agenda.)

Whatever its outcome, testing and filters are first steps.

However, Milwaukee has yet to craft a comprehensive plan to replace the 70,000 to 80,000 lead service lines coursing beneath the city.

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