The fight to end Milwaukee’s catastrophic lead crisis

New lows have been reached by the city government in Milwaukee as tens of thousands of people are suffering from elevated blood lead levels.

The story is full of twists and turns: fraud, corruption and cover-ups. It reads like a crime novel. But it isn’t. It is real life, particularly for the working people of Milwaukee who must deal with contaminated water every day while the city scrambles to hide the problem and create excuses.

The Get the Lead Out Coalition of Milwaukee, which the Party for Socialism and Liberation is a part of, is a grassroots organization that has opposed these attempts by the city at every turn. Through academic research, mapping, fundraising and door to door canvassing, it has begun to make a real difference in countering the narrative of the city.

The coalition has also been involved in direct action campaigns, rallying at city hall on multiple occasions, sitting in and protesting Common Council sessions and budget hearings, and meeting with health department officials and the city attorney to put pressure on the administration. In fact, the Get the Lead Out Coalition aims to tell the whole story, from start to finish, about how Milwaukee came to have blood lead levels 4 times the national average and childhood blood lead levels in 2 zip codes higher than in Flint, Michigan.

Historical background

So let’s start with a little bit of historical background. In the early to mid 1800s, Wisconsin was a major lead mining state and many of the most productive mines were in south western Wisconsin, the other side of the state from Milwaukee. However, as is documented by very old maps from the American Geographical Science Library, a Milwaukee Journal Article from 1921, and the academic geographer Mary Dobbs, the roadways from the mines to Milwaukee were distinct and heavily trafficked. The 1852 map of Milwaukee county distinctly labels the major road leading into the city as “Lead Highway”.

Though the lead mining industry in Wisconsin began to decline in scale after 1870, lead mines like the Gribble & Stevens mine, near the town of Linden WI, still held major economic clout and were able to utilize this economic agency to influence political decisions in Milwaukee. This is exactly what happened in 1872 when Mayor Harrison Ludington, presiding over a growing industrial city, mandated that when houses were built and connected to the new city water system, lead pipes were required. It was a mandate passed down by the city based on monetary influence from several lead mining and processing companies. This information is readily available in the Harrison Ludington Papers, located in the Golda Meir Library archives in Milwaukee.

So now we have the city mandate, the law that made lead laterals mandatory, and remained in place long after the mining companies were gone, until 1962 when the city finally recognized that lead was extremely harmful when consumed by humans. Then, in 1986, the city added definitions of ownership to the laterals, which had previously been assumed to be owned and controlled by the city as part of the 1872 mandate, stating that about 2/3 of the lateral was owned by the property owner, the section from the sidewalk to the house, and the other 1/3 was owned by the city, from the curb stop to the main in the street. The city was able to defer responsibility for the lead laterals by burying it in a large public works rules document, not through city statute or legislation and thus, without the consent of the people.

The historical roots of lead poisoning in Milwaukee are linked to the political decisions of mayors from the 1850s all the way up to present day as they took campaign money from lead mining and processing conglomerates and later, after being forced to end the lead lateral mandate, used deceptive tactics to alter ownership rules, effectively deferring responsibility to home owners so that they would not have to budget for a massive lead lateral replacement project in the future.

The present day

Let us now take a step forward into the recent past and present day, the current realities of Milwaukee’s lead infrastructure. The situation began to escalate in 2015 when Paul Biedrzycki, the director of disease control and environmental health for the city, notified Mayor Tom Barrett of the urgency of the situation.

Not only were the laterals already in a state of decay and causing the poisoning of masses of people, the city’s water main replacement pilot program, which would only replace the city owned portion of the lateral during water main replacements, would disturb the laterals and cause flaking and leaching of high levels of lead into the water. As EPA Michael Schock put it, “Basically, people with lead pipes are drinking the water through permanently lead-painted straws, even with good corrosion control in place.” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Johnson, Spicuzza and Bice 2018)

However, the city went forward with it’s pilot program anyway and, unsurprisingly, saw massive spikes in lead poisoning in areas in which the project was conducted. This was shown in an article released by Carrie Lewis, the head of the Milwaukee Water Works at the time, showing that maintenance of water mains and partial lateral removals in Milwaukee caused spikes in lead poisoning, after which she resigned and moved to Oregon. (Lewis 2016) For the city’s part, they disgustingly sent out $25 Target gift cards to families that experienced lead poisoning because of this pilot.

These were just precursors of the problems to come. In January 2018 the long time city Health Commissioner Bevin Baker resigned in disgrace after it was revealed that the health department failed follow up with over 3,000 households in which children tested had severely elevated blood lead levels.

Mayor Barrett, despite being informed of the problems and taking limited action to address them in 2015, plead ignorance over the disorganization of the lead abatement program. His claims are undermined by emails the Get the Lead out Coalition has acquired from an anonymous source in the health department, which show that he knew the lead program was failing and actively tried to make sure word did not get out to the public.

Baker, while complicit with this policy, was merely a scapegoat for the mayor, who knew about the dangerous extent of lead poisoning in Milwaukee and did nothing. Then in February 2018 WPR reported that the federally funded lead abatement program through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was discontinued as the disorganization, lack of transparency and possible misuse of funds by the health department indicated that massive changes needed to be made before funding could continue. (Conde 2018)

While it seems like there were many sure warning signs up to this point, little has changed and a mass exodus of officials from various city departments demonstrates that a crisis is brewing. While Biedrzycki and Lewis were early departures, high profile administrators like Baker, Commissioner of Public Works Ghassan Korban, Mayor’s Chief of Staff Pat Curley, and most recently Milwaukee Water Work’s director Jennifer Gonda as well as multitudes of other staffers have also departed.

The ship is sinking around mayor Tom Barrett and, while he has allocated $20 million in his most recent budget to the removal of lead laterals, this is far from enough. The mayor does not have a consolidated, long term plan for funding the removal of lead laterals and still maintains that it really isn’t the city’s responsibility to remove 2/3 of the pipe, which are privately owned based on the 1986 public works rule. Further, the filter distribution program which started after the revelations of 2015, has been defunded and discontinued. The city now, shockingly, sends out letters warning about lead pipes with a orange sticky band, instructing owners to place this around their lead lateral attachment in the basement to remind them that they have pipes that contaminate their water.

Replace the pipes: safe drinking water now!

What the city is doing is not enough. Their claims of ignorance of the crisis are undermined by emails which show they intended to cover up the problem. They have no plan and have not properly allocated funding for such a massive project, which at the rate the city is going, will take 120 years to complete.

The city is complicit in the poisoning of the population and yet refuses to take responsibility. The lead poisoning problem in Milwaukee also has broader ramifications. Studies show links between lead poisoning and neurological impairment, heart disease, increased violence, poor test scores and general academic underachievement.

Could the endemic problems in the Milwaukee Public Schools be linked to 3 generations of poisoned children in Milwaukee’s poorest and most segregated neighborhoods? Academics seem to think so. Medical research has established a connection between early childhood lead exposure and future criminal activity, especially of a violent nature (Needleman et al. 1996; Needleman et al. 2002; Wright et al. 2008). Numerous studies link elevated bone or blood lead levels with aggression, destructive and delinquent behavior, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and criminal behavior (Bellinger et al. 1994; Nevin 2000; Needleman et al. 2002; Needleman 2004; Braun et al. 2006; Wright et al. 2008). Broader research links lead exposure to antisocial and destructive behavior in humans and animals (Canfield et al. 2004; Froehlich et al. 2007; Surkan and Zhang 2007).

Red flags have been raised time and time again, by city officials, federal agencies, academic researchers, and grass roots community groups. If the city will not recognize this problem is a result of lead in water, rather than lead in paint as they have previously alleged, then what is their narrative? Where it the city’s evidence?

The pieces put together by the Get the Lead Out Coalition fit neatly together while the city has yet to make any comprehensive, research based statements or come up with any plan for the removal of lead laterals. Why not listen to what the people propose rather than trying to undermine and lie to them?

The reason has to do with the endemic spending by Mayor Barrett and the Common Council on luxury improvements and urban renewal projects in the downtown and tourist districts. Through the use of subsidies and Tax Increment Financing Districts (TIFDs) the city is able to allocate massive amounts of the budget for sky scrapers, luxury condos, a new basketball arena, a downtown street car and high end riverfront condos.

The city has the money to address this lead problem in 20 years but will not jeopardize its lavish spending as Tom Barrett seeks to cement his legacy as the mayor who built ‘Camelot’ in downtown Milwaukee: a big, beautiful and expensive facade to cover up the gross injustices that occur in Milwaukee and have been occurring for years. These actions are criminal and have caused the poisoning of generations of Milwaukee children. Barrett may not have mandated that the lead pipes be laid but he has certainly had the opportunity to remove them and this neglect should land him and the aforementioned officials in jail. Thousands of dead and severely brain damaged children are apparently not enough for Barrett, however, as he pushes forward with a $128 million expansion package to service the lakefront tourist district.

Massive segregation, poverty, food deserts, infant mortality rates, police oppression and violence, wage gaps, discrimination, violence and robbery, unemployment rates and under achievement in public schools are just some of the most prevalent issues that plague our city and it comes back to the greed of the ruling Democrat party and city officials that have been thoroughly bought out. The political machine of Milwaukee has fully bought in to the invasive and predatory policies of urban renewal capitalism, a issue that is now killing, literally and figuratively, our city.

But this isn’t just Milwaukee. Hundreds of cities and towns across Wisconsin have lead water infrastructure, creating a similar problem, albeit on a smaller scale, in poor and working class communities across the state. To look outside of Wisconsin, major metropolitan areas such as Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago and Washington D.C. have massive lead problems that are being swept aside by city officials. This is not just an issue with Milwaukee but with the systemic greed, waste and exploitation of capitalism. It allows small scale public officials, who face little to no electoral challenge, to sell the public a facade while simultaneously poisoning generations of children. The poorest residents of the working class are the ones who suffer while the Barretts of cities across the US push urban renewal to enrich themselves and the various corporate interests and real estate investors that leach off the city budget.

In order for the health of the public to improve and society to survive, capitalism must be replaced with a system that puts the public first, a system where real working and oppressed people have power and the public has legitimate forms of expression. What I am talking about is Socialism, the system which must triumph over capitalism if our planet and the people on it are to prosper and progress.


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