Milwaukee fights back against poisoned water

Map showing distribution of lead service lines in Milwaukee
Map showing distribution of lead service lines in Milwaukee

For 70,000 to 100,000 families in Milwaukee, the water piped into their homes is contaminated by lead. This may sound like a startling statistic, but for residents it has been a stark reality for decades.

In response to public pressure the city of Milwaukee, dominated by Democratic politicians since 1960, has proposed a plan that calls for the lead service lines contaminating the water to be replaced over the next 120 years, an outrageous and insulting timeline for families suffering now. At that rate, the next three generations of children, who are especially susceptible to the effects of lead poisoning, will suffer the consequences.

These dire consequences are squarely the result of the inaction and unwillingness of Mayor Tom Barrett and the Milwaukee Common Council to allocate the necessary funding to resolve this fundamental public health issue. However, this problem eclipses the current political landscape and city administration.

A legacy of contamination

Public records from 1872 and 1921 show that the city of Milwaukee mandated the use of lead laterals (the pipes that connect the city water main running under the street to individual homes) and further, claimed ownership of these laterals as city property. This trend continued until 1962, when the use of lead pipes of any kind were banned by the Milwaukee Common Council. However, the damage was done and as the structural integrity of the lead laterals degraded over the decades, blood lead levels began to spike in the city. Since the time that the city government discovered the degree to which Milwaukee’s water was contaminated, they have spent countless hours and millions of dollars attempting to cover it up and defer responsibility to homeowners and renters.

One tactic the city employed was to unilaterally transfer ownership of half of each lateral to the homeowner, stating that the city was now only responsible for the half from the curb to the main and that the property owner was responsible for everything else. Based on this mandate of dubious legality, the city went forward with a plan to replace “their” half of each lateral. The results of this plan were disastrous. As it turns out, the rigorous operation of cutting a lateral and only replacing one half causes a galvanic corrosion effect, leading to even worse contamination of the water being piped into homes. Realizing that this plan would not allow the city to sweep the lead contamination issue under the carpet, freshly elected Mayor Barrett transferred full ownership of the laterals to the home owner, including the portion running under the street.

At this present moment, blood lead levels in Milwaukee’s most economically exploited and racially segregated neighborhoods are bearing the brunt of this crisis as the city continues to state that it will only replace lead laterals during regularly scheduled water main maintenance, and during instances of emergency breaks and leaks, a process that will take 120 years to fully remove all lead laterals.

This is unacceptable.

People fight back

With discontent growing around this issue, the people have not been silent. Many progressive political groups and community organizations have formed the “Get the Lead Out Coalition” to expose the corruption of the Barrett administration, educate those most affected about how to protect their families in the short term, and to demand immediate action to remove the lead pipes.

The coalition burst onto Milwaukee’s political scene with ra ally of over 100 organizers at Milwaukee City Hall on February 14 to protest the cover up by the Mayor’s office of its failure to inform nearly 6,000 households of a study showing elevated blood lead levels of their children. Since that time the coalition has grown and branched out to other progressive organizations that recognize the dire health crisis that contaminated water represents. This work has involved programs intended to assist families in preserving their health in the short term and an ongoing campaign to expose and combat those working against lead pipe removal in the political and business realm.

All revolutionary and progressive people should unite to stop the criminals in the Barrett administration and on the Milwaukee Common Council from poisoning the people any longer!

Water is life and we demand clean water!

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