Milwaukee Common Council Approves Lead Water Pipe Replacement Ordinance

Dec 13, 2016

UPDATE: The Council approved the lead pipe ordinance with a vote 12 to 3 Tuesday morning, with one amendment. That being the Department of Public Works will be required to provide quarterly progress reports. 

Amendment author Alderman Russell Stamper says as service lines are replaced, he wants to know who is able to pay and who is not.

ORIGINAL STORY: The council is poised to take a controversial vote this morning – one that could affect 70,000 homes. The proposed ordinance would require the owners to replace the lead pipes that deliver city water to the home - if a rupture occurs in the system outside.

Why the rule? Advocates says it’s a first step in addressing all the properties built before 1951 with lead service lines. They risk contaminating young children.

Carrie Lewis shared information on 2016 lead service line replacements at the Water Quality Task Force meeting on December 9, 2016.
Credit Susan Bence

Old pipes are prone to break. Milwaukee Water Works superintendent Carrie Lewis says this year crews replaced about 300 water lines that ruptured, on the city side.

"And about a dozen homeowners have responded and replaced their side," Lewis says.

At 50 other homes, pipes leaked on the property owner’s side of the water system.

"The owners are replacing the pipes when the leak is on their privately owned portion and they have no choice but to replace it. They’re less embracing it, when it’s optional, when it’s the city side that had the leak," Lewis says.

Milwaukee leaders have become acutely aware that if only a portion of a lead line is replaced, not only can the lead levels spike during the disturbance, but the remaining portion can still release lead into the drinking water.

Lewis says the proposed ordinance would remove risk – one complete service line at a time.

Property owners would pay a maximum of $1600, and could spread out the payments over 10 years.

Dr. Patricia McManus with the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin worries that many city homeowners might buckle under that burden.

"We’re treating you all the same, which is not always good, when you’re in a city like Milwaukee that is so impoverished, so segregated, that the impact on certain populations is not equitable," McManus says.

The Common Council was supposed to vote on the measure three weeks ago, but several members wanted to give residents a chance to weigh in.

Resident Nolan Gray and Alderman Russell Stamper
Credit Susan Bence

One public meeting took place at North Division High School over the weekend.

Nolan Gray called it a good dialogue. He owns a duplex where two summers ago the lead line on his side of the property sprang a leak.

"Immediately I had to do a repaired and the most affordable way was to replace a portion of the line and not the full lateral," Gray says.

Gray realizes he still has possible problems on his hands.

"As far as me being a landlord, I'm really just concerned about the long-term effects. If they can make it affordable for me to have that replaced and make it less risky, that's helpful to me as far as me working with the city and being a resident," Gray says.

Resident Ramel Smith (center back) and his sons attended the public meeting at North Division High School.
Credit Susan Bence

Resident Ramel Smith wants the city to prove it’s doing the right thing.

"The information that the city has been giving for years has either been less than honest or not truthful..How can we trust you to have a meeting like this to know the next steps going forward that we’re going to be heard," Smith says.

He offers an example, "Well yeah, Commissioner Baker said our water was safe and then Alderman Joe Davis came back the water is not safe. It was a half-truth because the water in itself was safe, but they understood that going through the lead laterals made the water unsafe," Smith says.

He has his two young sons in tow, and says not tending the situation as soon as humanly possible puts hundreds of city children like his, on a negative developmental trajectory.

Alderpersons Stamper (left), Coggs and Rainey organized the public meeting.
Credit Susan Bence

Milele Coggs is one of the Common Council members who slowed down the final vote.

She thinks Milwaukeeans agree that SOMETHING must be done to remove the city’s 70,000 lead service lines.

"So it’s good to see the city moving towards some level of a policy. The greater bone of contention seems to be, right now the city would pay for 85 percent of the lateral expense….there are those who think the city should take on 100 percent, " Coggs adds, "I’m sure we’ll debate on Tuesday."

If the council votes yes, the city will take its first step toward fostering line replacements in 2017. Leaders have not yet fashioned a long-term plan, for the lines that don’t spring a leak.