Militant Journalism

Activists fight to get lead pipes replaced in Milwaukee

Photo courtesy of the Get the Lead Out Coalition
Photo courtesy of the Get the Lead Out Coalition

Activists in Milwaukee have recently scored another victory in their effort to force the city government to remove the over 75,000 lead laterals leading to homes. On March 26, the Milwaukee Common Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Health Department and Department of Public Works to develop a comprehensive plan for the removal of every lead service line throughout the city.

Prior to this resolution, the city had acted at a snail’s pace, removing lead laterals at a rate which meant it would have taken over 100 years to completely remove pieces of toxic infrastructure from the drinking water system. It is clear that many in city leadership are not taking the threat of contaminated drinking water seriously, preferring to spend money on luxury projects downtown rather than making sure that poor and working people in the neighborhoods have safe drinking water.

The Get the Lead Out Coalition of Milwaukee has long been pressuring the city to overhaul its lead abatement program, pointing specifically to corruption within the health department and a clear lack of transparency as reasons to doubt the statements and motives of the city bureaus tasked with providing safe drinking water to the public. Through tireless grassroots activism, public outreach and scientific research, GTLO was able to force the Milwaukee Common Council to grant a hearing at which evidence could be presented outlining that lead in water posed a larger threat to public health than the city was letting on.

Why lead pipes must be removed

On February 14th, members of GTLO, which is composed of the the Freshwater for Life Action Coalition, the Greater Milwaukee Green Party, the Party for Socialism and Liberation-Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Democratic Socialists of America, and others, sat down across from members of the Common Council Steering and Rules Committee to voice their grievances on behalf of the working people of Milwaukee.

First, it was demonstrated that the Milwaukee Health Department had altered maps which showed lead levels in Milwaukee, manipulating data to make it look like the problem was getting better. The problem was not improving however, as the number children with elevated blood lead levels increased in 2017 and 2018 and the number of children hospitalized with extremely elevated blood levels has also been increasing since 2013, according to Dr. Heather Paradis of Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. These altered maps were presented at public meetings in areas of the city where hundreds of lead laterals are in the ground and lead poisoning remains an ongoing threat. The health department and its academic proxy organization, the Zilber School of Public Health, attacked GTLO for bringing this information forward, calling the coalition a “threat to the community” and doubling down on the claim that toxic water infrastructure in these areas did not represent a statistically significant threat.

Second, GTLO demonstrated the falsity of claims made by the Health Department and other city bureaus, that the problem is not lead in the water but instead is lead based paint. Using GIS spatial data mapping, scientists with the coalition were able to determine that there is no correlation between elevated blood lead levels and the presence of lead paint in the city of Milwaukee. Large sections of the city where housing was built during a time when lead based paint would have been used have no cases of lead poisoning at all. Meanwhile neighborhoods where large scale lead paint abatement projects took place, but lead laterals remain in the ground, have a high density of lead poisoning cases. It is believed that the city is pushing a narrative that favors lead paint as the primary source of lead poisoning because it is currently engulfed in a decade long lawsuit with Sherwin Williams.

Further, the process for abating lead paint is relatively easy and inexpensive, as compared to replacing lead laterals, which would cost the city upwards of $750 million if it were to take responsibility for replacing every pipe in the city. Also of note, the city can push off responsibility for lead paint costs on to the corporation which produced and sold the paint, but cannot avoid responsibility for the lead laterals. It was former Mayor Harrison Ludington who mandated in 1872 that only lead pipes could be connected to Milwaukee’s water system. This mandate lasted until 1951 and lead lateral installations were not banned until 1962. Dozens of laterals in Milwaukee are well over 100 years old. Despite the fact that the city alone is responsible for the installation of these laterals, it was able to legally designate a difference between the “private side” and the “public side” as a way to sidestep this responsibility, claiming that everything from the curb to the house would be the owners’ responsibility.

Resistance from city officials

The Steering and Rules Committee was filled with many hardline detractors, who clearly care little about the health of residents in Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods. The points made by GTLO, however, could not be ignored and the city was once again forced to schedule another round of hearings for March 22 in the Public Health and Safety Committee. At this hearing it was demonstrated by GTLO that there is a correlation between elevated blood lead levels and infant deaths in Milwaukee. This is an especially serious revelation which was a point of heated contention between the community activists and scientists who comprise the coalition and representative of the health department who were present.

Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik and Water Works Director Karen Dettmer, both of whom have recently been appointed because of the departure of their corrupt predecessors, vehemently denied that there was any indication that lead in water had any role in infant deaths. These claims were made despite the research conducted by former Interim Health Commissioner and water activist Patricia McManis, who demonstrated that exposure to lead contamination in Milwaukee increased the likelihood of negative birth outcomes.  Furthermore, the City Coroner’s Office does not even test infants for lead post-mortem.

Despite the vehement denial of city officials, including by Mayor Tom Barrett (D), the pressure applied by the activist coalitions has yielded undeniable results. The Health Department and Department of Public Works was required to present a comprehensive plan for lead lateral removal to the Common Council by May 7, fulfilling one of the primary goals laid out by GTLO in its founding charter.

A socialist vision

What does this situation indicate about politics in Milwaukee, and many other cities facing similar threats to public health? Clearly, it demonstrates that the irrational statements made by city officials and local politicians are based on adherence to capitalist principles of profit accumulation. These officials of have shown that they will deny that lead contaminated water is dangerous and creates serious health effects in the community. They do so  in order to defer blame and continue funneling public money into building luxury infrastructure in the downtown area to be enjoyed by wealthy suburbanites, tourists and their own corporate backers. It has also shown that there are groups of political activists that utilize socialist political discourse and activism to advocate on behalf of the working class. The Get the Lead Out Coalition is determined to see the process of lead lateral replacement through to the end, a commitment which is necessary since Milwaukee has neglected its responsibilities to the community.

In a broader way, it shows that capitalism is an irrational and failing system, which maintains itself through force and is loved little by the working class. There are clear alternatives to this system of social and economic organization, and socialist groups have stepped up as advocates for the working class and continue to show that there is a better way.

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