RACINE — With the Laurel Clark Memorial Fountain and Lake Michigan symbolically in the background, community leaders and a handful of Racine citizens gathered Wednesday morning to discuss lead contamination in Racine County’s drinking water.
Environmental advocate Melissa Warner, a volunteer activist with the Sierra Club, organized the event.
“I am here because it’s the people’s right to safe drinking water, and access to swimmable, fishable waters, as promised in both our public trust doctrine and the Clean Air Act, that is being challenged,” Warner said.
The Sierra Club also released its report, “Lead Contamination in Wisconsin,” which highlights lead contamination problems in Wisconsin.
“As one of Wisconsin’s cities with older houses, Racine has a high number of children and adults with elevated blood lead levels,” Warner said. “These older houses have flaking, lead-based paint, and they have water pipes with leaded brass fittings and lead solder. The residents of these older homes are those least likely to be able to financially properly repaint their houses or replace the water pipes on their own.”
City of Racine Department of Health’s Sarah Clemons, a certified health education specialist, echoed Warner’s sentiment. She said the lack of testing in children under 6 is a major issue, as lead paint was discontinued in 1978, yet 95 percent of Racine homes were built before then.
“Recent Census data suggests that over 8,000 children are under the age of 6 in the City of Racine; however, there were only 2,500 children tested for lead in 2016,” Clemons said. “In the month of April, not one child in the City of Racine was tested for the first time for lead. Every child who turned 1 year old in April should have been tested.”
According to Clemons, elevated lead levels are often asymptomatic in young children, but the effects, which include slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, hyperactivity and aggressive, antisocial behavior, become an issue in school-age children. “Children should be tested at 12, 18 and 24 months and then again at 3, 4 and 5 years old,” she said.
City of Racine Water Utility’s Mike Kosterman, who oversees the water quality monitoring program, said the city is working hard to remedy the problem, but the fix will be costly and take time.
“The only sure way of eliminating exposure is basically to remove the problem in the first place,” Kosterman said. “We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 to 12,000 lead service lines or partial lead service lines still in our system. At about $5,000 to $6,000 per removal, Racine’s cost is going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million dollars.”
The Lead and Copper Rule, which aims to reduce lead and copper concentrations in consumers’ drinking water, was implemented in Racine in 1993. The City has changed its water chemistry to add a protective layer to line the insides of problematic pipes. But replacement, Kosterman said, is ideal.
“We as a utility have been replacing our portion of the lead service line for years, as we replace water mains,” he said. “But we cannot legally require our customers to replace their portion of the service lines.”
A lead replacement program is in place to help consumers pay to replace their pipes. Racine received $500,000 from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 2016, and hopes to receive an addition $500,000, to help customers replace their portion of lead service lines, Kosterman said.
“This $500,000 grant is designed to help defray the cost to our customers to replace their portion of the lead service lines,” he said.
“Students from Racine and other cities routinely fare less well in school,” Warner said. “They graduate at lower levels, they seek secondary education less often. Elevated lead levels affect intelligence and the ability to deal with complex problems permanently. Every student whose potential is reduced is a loss of human and economic resources for our state.”