Flint pipes (copy)

Lead from corroded pipes in Flint, Michigan, is partially to blame for a public health crisis in the impoverished community. On a recent episode of "Capital City Sunday," Kerry Shuman of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters called the situation in Wisconsin "almost as bad as Flint." 

There’s no question that lead in Wisconsin water is a major problem.

“I hate to break it to you, but it is almost as bad as Flint,” said Kerry Schumann, of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, on Sunday's installment of “Capital City Sunday." “We have a huge problem, and it’s all across the state.”

The question is who should pay for the solution: local water utilities or cities?

In a rare show of unity, 55 bipartisan cosponsors and a healthy amount of lobbying organizations joined in support of a new bill that aims to tackle the lead pipe crisis by passing the cost along to local water utilities. But Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) is lobbying against the bill, arguing that the cost of the solution should fall to cities, who they say could have started solving the problems years ago.

“It’s probably a little lonely for you right now, being the only group opposing it,” Schumann said to fellow guest Lucas Vebber, environmental policy director at WMC, on the show that aired on Sunday morning. 

Lead in water can cause brain damage in children, mental illnesses and violent behavior, Schumann said. Wisconsin has a major lead problem, with lead poisoning rates among children in Milwaukee and Watertown twice that of kids in Flint, Michigan.

“It’s not just about the individual child or family. It really has such huge applications that it’s something we have to address,” Schumann said.

Pipes need to be replaced, but water utilities are only legally responsible for public lead pipes. Lines within a homeowners property must be replaced by the homeowner, which can cost several thousand dollars. The bill (Assembly Bill 78 and Senate Bill 48) would require local water utilities to offer low-interest and no-interest loans and grants to replace service lines for low-income families.

This is necessary because it’s imperative to replace all lead pipes to solve the problem, Schumann said. Replacing only parts of the line tends to cause more corrosion, releasing even more lead into the pipes.

Vebber argued that cities should be responsible for the costs of replacing private pipes. Water utility ratepayers are already contributing about $100 million to municipalities statewide every year, money that cities have not used to replace lead pipes.

“That's money that could have and should have been used for decades to solve this problem,” Vebber said.

If municipalities set aside those payments for six years, they would be able to give a grant for 100 percent of the cost for every lead service line in Wisconsin, he said.

If that $100 million is not enough, cities could expand their funding sources, he said. He cited Madison, which leased water towers to cell phone companies, and about 10 years ago replaced lead service lines all around the community.

“It is definitely possible for municipalities with existing funding sources, with the existing powers they have, to provide this financial assistance. And they can be doing it, they should be doing it, we wish they would be,” Vebber said.

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Schumann argued that cities have to use the $100 million from the utilities to deal with the yearly cost of pipe repairs.

“It’s not like there's a bunch of money sitting around in coffers earning interest,” Schumann said. “There’s not a big slush fund of money.”

She also said that six years was too long to wait, and a delayed solution will lead to more costs. Companies currently flush a chemical solution through the pipes in order to decrease corrosion, but that solution leads to increased costs in waste water treatment.

“The longer it takes us to start solving it, the longer it will take us to solve it overall,” Schumann said.

Vebber said cities could have started fixing this problem years ago.

“This is a problem cities have known about for decades. They have collected hundreds of millions of dollars from ratepayers for decades,” he said.

He placed the responsibility for the problem firmly on individual cities.

“Municipalities are going to have to make some tough choices here,” Vebber said. “They’re going to have to decide what’s more important in their budget right now than this public health crisis, than protecting our children and families.”

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