by Dylan Deprey
It was a year ago that Marc Edwards traveled to Flint, MI with a group of colleagues on what he considered a ‘suicide mission.’ The Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech University said that at the time they believed they were witnessing an “environmental crime.” Having put their careers on the line they found that severe amounts of Lead leaching into drinking water, along with pipe corrosion had produced bile colored water that was unsuitable for humans.
While the water is far from undrinkable in Milwaukee, 140,000 lead laterals scattered across the state pose a threat for clean drinking water.
Around 70,000 of those lead laterals are buried underneath houses built throughout the early 1900’s in Milwaukee.
During the Public Policy and American Drinking Water conference hosted by Marquette Law School on Sept. 7, 2016, Edwards stated that Milwaukee adding phosphate to water along with people flushing before drinking were a necessary Band-Aid for the issue.
While the strength of the Band-Aid’s adhesive may hold for now, the issue of funding a full removal of lead laterals is a problem no bandage can manage. The total cost for the entire removal reaches up to $500 million.
According to Cathy Stepp, Secretary for Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the DNR has allocated $14.5 Million with the help of the EPA, to create the 2017 Safe Drinking Water Loan Program (SDWLP.) Milwaukee received 6.8 percent of the loan to go toward aiding the replacement of private lead laterals. Although 50 percent of the lead laterals in the state lay in Milwaukee, money was spread throughout 35 other cities across the state.
“There are communities all over the state that are suffering and the challenge is how do we do the most amount around the state with this one-time shot,” Stepp said.
Homeowners are looking at around a whopping $4,000 to replace the lead laterals on their property, which are then connected to the city owned and financed water main.
Mayor Tom Barrett said that Milwaukee houses the second largest concentration of poor people in the country, most of which live in older houses with lead pipes. He said the city was “aggressively” working to find funding at the Federal, State and any additional level willing and to help with the bill.
As the issue of funding for lead laterals rings throughout City Hall, other issues have begun to slowly peel back the Band-Aid approach.
Mayor Barrett said that it roughly costs around 16 cents to flush water for 10 minutes. Royal added that although flushing may be inexpensive, on an environmental scale it was a huge waste of fresh water.
According to the EPA, the average American already uses 80 to 100 gallons of water on a daily basis.
Stepp also added in that the phosphate put in water to layer the pipes and prevent lead from chipping away can accumulate after being sent back to Lake Michigan.
The increased amount of phosphate in the water acts as a food source for algae to bloom across the lake.
Mayor Barrett left the conference reminding the city that for the time being, end-of-the-line filtration systems were an effective stand-in preventative until lead laterals are removed.
While this might be fresh band aid to cover the issue for a little longer, Edwards has witnessed the horror of lead poisoning water first hand.
“As long as we have these lead pipes, no one knowledgeable will ever say that the water is safe, no matter how good your corrosion control is,” Edwards said.