Madison – During a public hearing this week, Wisconsin’s business lobby, lead by the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) told a group of lawmakers that cities should be responsible for the costs of moving lead pipes – not utilities.
Wisconsin’s business lobby spoke out publicly against a bipartisan legislative proposal to replace thousands of underground pipes that leach toxic lead into drinking water.
WMC is not against removing lead water lines that can cause permanent brain damage in children, “but the current proposal should be changed to make cities — not water utilities — cover costs that will run in the millions of dollars”, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce told a state Assembly committee.
Backers of the bill countered that if cities were responsible there would likely be years of additional delays because state limits on local tax revenue have left most straining to pay for basic municipal services.
The presence of lead in drinking water has been known for decades, but awareness increased across the country after news emerged in 2015 about how mismanagement of the drinking water system in Flint, Michigan, caused a public health crisis.
At least 176,000 Wisconsin water customers have lead service lines, with about half in Milwaukee County. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says there is no safe blood lead level in children. Tiny lead particles that flake off into running water can accumulate in the body to cause irreversible brain damage to young children. Lead can also slow growth and, in rare cases, cause death.
An obstacle to removing the pipes is that state law allows water utilities to replace lead pipe only from the street to a homeowner’s property line. Property owners must cover costs on private property from the curb to the house.
Many homeowners — especially those with limited income — are unwilling or unable to pay the average $3,600 it costs. Experts strongly advise against removing only the public section of the pipe, because that can knock loose more lead from the remaining line.
Assembly Bill 78 and Senate Bill 48 would allow water utilities to help water customers remove lead water pipes. The assistance could come in the form of grants and low-interest or no-interest loans that target low-income homeowners.
The Senate committee approved the bill unanimously March 29, but Senate leaders didn’t bring it to a vote during the Senate floor session April 4.
Cost is the reason no other Wisconsin city — and few in the nation — have tried to remove all their lead pipes, Witynski said. Milwaukee has estimated it will take 50 years to do the job there.