Shawn Johnson

Wisconsin Public Radio

The Wisconsin state Senate will vote Tuesday on a plan that could help remove lead water pipes running underground in communities throughout Wisconsin.

There are at least 176,000 lead service lines that connect public water mains to Wisconsin homes according to an estimate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

While water utilities can use chemicals to reduce the amount of lead in drinking water, experts say the only way to completely eliminate the problem is to get rid of lead pipes completely.

"Twenty years from now, we don't want to look back and say 'Oh, we still have these pipes, we're still poisoning children from our water,'" said Dr. Elizabeth Neary, a pediatrician who has studied the effects of lead on children.

"Lead poisoning is silent," Neary said. "We don't know the impacts of lead poisoning until later in life. But we do know that lead is toxic to the developing brain."

Part of the reason replacing lead service lines is so difficult is that part of the responsibility – and the cost – falls to homeowners.

While local governments can replace the portion of lead service lines that run below city streets, it's up to residents to replace pipe from the edge of their property to their homes.

If cities only replace the public portion of lead service lines and leave the rest, experts say it can actually result in more lead in drinking water, not less.

"It's a big problem, especially among older, urban communities that have been around since the beginning of the state," said League of Wisconsin Municipalities Assistant Director Curt Witynski, whose group supports the plan. "Before 1950, everyone thought lead was the best type of pipe for moving water."

The problem is especially pronounced in Milwaukee, where an estimated 70,000 lead service lines need to be replaced.

Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources said last year it costs homeowners about $3,000 on average to replace a lead service line.

The bill up for a vote in the state Senate would let water utilities offer customers grants or low-interest loans to replace water lines.

That could result in higher water utility bills for all ratepayers, something that's not an option under current law.

"This bill really just creates a tool for communities to use if they want to," said Witynski. "To be able to spread that general cost among all water utility payers on the residential side."

Witynski said utilities could also explore new sources of revenue to replace lead pipes, like the City of Madison did when it replaced all of its lead service lines from 1995 to 2011. That project, which totaled $15.5 million, was funded in part by new revenue from cell phone antennas.

The nation's aging system of lead pipes came under more scrutiny when lead seepage into the drinking water in Flint, Michigan caused a massive public health crisis.

"If they didn’t have lead service lines, they would have never had the Flint crisis," Neary said. "The permanent solution is to remove the lead service line."

The state's largest business group, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, opposed an earlier version of the plan before the Senate, arguing that the cost of replacing lead pipes should fall to cities, not water utilities.

WMC spokesman Nick Novak said amendments to the plan had addressed the group's concerns and it was now neutral on the bill.

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