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Selected tag(s): Wisconsin

Wisconsin law removes crucial barrier to lead pipe replacement

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director and Sam Lovell, Project Specialist

Yesterday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed legislation that takes an important step to replacing the 240,000 lead service lines (LSLs) in communities across the state. SB-48 allows municipalities and water utilities to provide financial assistance to property owners to replace LSLs on private property. We described the legislation in an earlier blog – and applauded the critical work of state advocates in building support for the law.

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Wisconsin on the verge of taking an important step to replacing its lead pipes

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

In 2012, Madison, Wisconsin became the first city in the country to fully eliminate its lead service lines (LSLs), the lead pipes that connect the drinking water main under the street to interior plumbing. The project to replace its 8,000 known LSLs began in 2000. The City’s effort is a model of persistence and common sense as it overcame many barriers including challenges with the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC).

The PSC blocked the use of rates paid by customers to fund replacement of lead pipes on private property. The PSC, whose mission is to ensure adequate and reasonably priced water service, was concerned that customers without LSLs would be subsidizing improvements to the property of those with LSLs. Unlike most state commissions which are responsible for utilities operated by private companies, PSC approves rates for municipal and private utilities. Eventually, Madison used a different source of funding for its $15.5 million LSL replacement program.

Currently, the Wisconsin State Legislature is on the cusp of passing legislation to remove this barrier faced by Madison and empower communities to better protect residents from lead in drinking water. SB-48, introduced by Senator Cowles (R-Green Bay) and co-sponsored by Representative Thiesfeld (R-Fond du Lac), has passed both chambers. When the legislature returns to session in January 2018, they will need to resolve a difference between the two versions regarding the maximum amount of financial assistance allowed to homeowners. To hear from both authors on the legislation, check out the webinar from the National Conference of State Legislatures regarding financing options for replacing LSLs.

With passage of the legislation, Wisconsin would be the fourth state to pass essential legislation empowering communities to replace LSLs, using rates paid by consumers, joining Indiana, and Pennsylvania. They are among 12 states that have adopted administrative or legislative policies to support community LSL replacement.  These states have an estimated 3.3 million of the nation’s 6.1 million LSLs.

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Lead service lines on private property – 3 states’ approaches to the challenge

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

After the tragedy in Flint, Michigan, there is broad agreement that lead service lines (LSLs) need to be replaced. While corrosion control is essential, it isn’t a fail-safe, long-term solution. With the risks posed by lead to children’s brain development, we must eliminate LSLs – which currently account for an estimated 50 to 75% of the lead in drinking water.

One of the most significant challenges is determining who pays for replacing the portion of a LSL on private property and how it can be done in a way that does not leave low-income residents behind. Most utilities consider service lines on private property to be the responsibility of the property owner. They see replacing customer-owned portions of LSLs as improvements to private property and are typically restricted from using funds collected from all customers to fund an upgrade that benefits only a few. States often impose restrictions as well.

The interpretation that customers are responsible for LSLs on their property is ironic in communities such as Chicago, which mandated the use of LSLs until Congress banned them in 1986.  Given that they had a hand in creating the problem, it seems that they have at least some responsibility in fixing it. The threat posed by lead was well known for decades before Congress acted. Cities such as Cincinnati banned the use of lead pipes in 1927 and Boston in the 1930s.

It is difficult to put responsibility solely on the homeowner since they are unlikely to have been told they have a LSL by the seller. Even if they were aware that their home is serviced by an LSL, the risk a LSL poses to their family’s health is only now becoming clear.

Without support, low-income residents often cannot afford to pay for their portion of the LSL replacement, even if they get zero- or low-interest loans. However, wealthy residents have more options to make the investment than their low-income neighbors and landlords should be making the investment as part of their business.

In December 2016, Congress weighed in and authorized EPA “to establish a $300 million grant program to replace lead service lines on residential property in disadvantaged communities.”[1] It is up to Congress to appropriate the funds as part of its infrastructure investments and ensure that the grant program will not be a hollow promise.

But many states are not waiting on Congress. Three states, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, have been wrestling with whether to allow communities to use a portion of rates paid by customers to pay for LSL replacements. Collectively, these states have an estimated 690,000 LSLs, 11% of the national estimate. In this blog, we will explore these three state approaches. Read More »

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