Questions and concerns remain over Milwaukee's slow lead pipe replacement plan

NOW: Questions and concerns remain over Milwaukee’s slow lead pipe replacement plan

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Questions remain about Milwaukee's efforts to replace tens of thousands of potentially harmful lead water pipes.

Community members and state leaders are frustrated, saying not every resource is being used. But the city's Water Works maintains the department is doing everything it can, and the pipes are being replaced as quickly as possible.

Other cities are using a federal program to accelerate replacement projects, and Milwaukee advocates want their city to also access those funds.

But Water Works said it's not that simple. So for now, the 70-year estimate to complete the project is the best they can do.

Democratic State Senator Lena Taylor of Milwaukee said, "It sends the message that we are not serious about this."

Taylor is one of many frustrated Milwaukeeans wondering why replacing the city's lead pipes is taking so long. She said Tuesday, "What we're doing is not enough."

And she's not alone.

Robert Miranda, a member of the Get the Lead Out Coalition, said, "The city is showing lack of urgency, lack of organizing, lack of a push."

We were at the Milwaukee Water Works town hall Monday night, where Taylor was one of dozens of people asking why the city is not participating in a federal program designed to accelerate lead pipe replacement.

At the time, she asked Water Works Superintendent Patrick Pauly, "Can you explain to me why we have not decided to be in the accelerator program?"

Pauly told us Tuesday he wishes he could speed up the process. "The theory is good. We want to accelerate the replacements."

The White House and the EPA touted Milwaukee when the accelerator program was unveiled in January.

At the time, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said he and Vice President Kamala Harris "traveled to cities like Newark, New Jersey; Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And we’ve seen firsthand the challenges that our communities are facing."

But Milwaukee Water Works declined to apply for money from a federal accelerator program.

Pauly explained Tuesday that money is largely for infrastructure help the city does not need, not for actual crews doing the digging. "It's really for utilities and municipalities that are trying to get their replacement program off the ground. And we've been doing this for over six years now."

But that doesn't sit well with Taylor, who asked, "Who is chosen to be part of a federal program to be part of a national model. Who says no to that?"

Advocates pointed to Detroit Tuesday, which just days earlier committed $100 million to escalate its replacement program from 700 pipes last year to 5,000 this year to 10,000 next year and beyond.

Senator Taylor said, "They're doing five times the number that Milwaukee is doing, in Detroit."

Miranda added, "That shows that where there's a will, there will be a way."

Milwaukee plans to replace 1,200 pipes in 2023 and 1,700 in 2024.

Pauly said, "We hope this is the foundation, that the 500 increase in 2024 can serve as a foundation for further increases."

But with 65,000 pipes to replace throughout the city, it could take 65-70 years.

Pauly said Milwaukee's finances prevent the city from making the same commitment Detroit made, but he added that acceleration also depends on the number of contractors and personnel available.

"It is something we are reminded of constantly: other municipalities that have moved forward with these huge initiatives and have been able to accomplish quite a bit more per year than what we have. We've been working as hard as we can at our pace."

Milwaukee Water Works wants to keep sharing information about the lead pipe replacement program, and answer community questions. Another town hall will be held June 6 at 6 p.m. at the Mitchell Street Library.

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