Originally published as an opinion piece by Joe Fitzgerald & Richard Diaz for Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.

Across the city, kids are returning to school, eager to learn. Some will struggle more than others due to high rates of lead poisoning.

Even at low levels, lead exposure creates learning problems, hyperactivity, lower IQ, and a slew of other health challenges. Additionally, lead exposure in adults can lead to high blood pressure, as well as brain, kidney and reproductive health issues.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson has announced a more aggressive timeline for replacing every lead pipe in the city, prioritizing blocks where kids have elevated blood lead levels.

The current rate of replacement would take 66 years; Mayor Johnson’s timeline decreases it to 20 years. Crucially, Johnson vowed this work will be done at no cost to residents, thanks to a combination of local, state, and federal dollars focused on delivering safe drinking water.

In August, President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin were here to tout the benefits of two federal funding bills—the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and the Inflation Reduction Act—which will bring needed resources to our city to remove lead pipes.

The BIL includes $15 billion for lead-pipe removal across the country, and Sen. Baldwin announced that Wisconsin—which is currently ranked with the highest number of lead pipes per capita—should receive about $370 million from that fund. Milwaukee has been working to address the lead problem for years, has an existing inventory and a removal program, but the city lacks the resources needed to move quickly to remove every pipe.

Milwaukee’s neighborhoods with the highest childhood lead levels tend to be lower-income and have more residents of color, making this a significant environmental justice issue and a public health concern.

Replacing lead service lines, prioritizing neighborhoods most impacted, will increase the city’s eligibility for grant funding through the state’s ranking criteria for priority projects. This also allows Milwaukee to accelerate pipe replacement in an equitable way.

We need to make sure those communities receive the full benefits the infrastructure bill brings, in the form of clean water and in the form of living wage careers.

To achieve this vision, we’ve been working with Milwaukee Water Works, Employ Milwaukee, and many other partners on the Milwaukee Water Equity Task Force to help develop and strengthen pathways for underrepresented communities to enter the water workforce and succeed in the public and the private sectors.

Milwaukee has an ecosystem of programs and partners that can train and place workers needed for lead pipe replacement. It’s a good starting point but needs to be strengthened, expanded, and fully funded to get training underway and replace lead lines as quickly as possible.

Within the public sector, Milwaukee Water Works reports having a 25% vacancy rate. That has limited its capacity to accelerate the replacement program. Over the next decade 37% of all water utility workers in the United States will retire, and a total of 1.7 million infrastructure workers will leave their jobs, creating a huge need and opportunity for new workers.

While there are issues in acquiring workers for the water utility, union signatory contractors stand ready to accelerate the pace of lead pipe replacement.

Milwaukee—which requires local hiring and racial diversity on projects receiving over $500,000 in city funding—requires that contractors comply with labor standards such as registered apprenticeship, apprenticeship utilization per skilled craft, and hiring from Milwaukee ZIP codes suffering the most from economic inequity.

The United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 75 and Laborers International Union of North America Local 113 both work on training workers within apprenticeship programs and placement with private contractors receiving work. Both unions report having waitlists of people wanting to accumulate apprenticeship hours on projects like lead pipe replacement.

The nationally recognized workforce intermediary WRTP | BIG STEP recruits, trains, and places workers with contractors, helping to advance key equity and workforce goals and serving as a feeder program into the union trades and a partner on public workforce development.

Milwaukee Water Works’ draft plan to replace lead lines block by block will make projects more accessible for private contractors, and its partnership with Employ Milwaukee on the Milwaukee Water Works Community Project will help fill some, but not all, utility hires needed to replace the city’s 66,000 lead service lines.

Without a fully funded program that staffs up Milwaukee Water Works and bids out enough work for contractors to replace lead lines blocks at a time, Milwaukee will miss the opportunity presented by the BIL.

We support Mayor Johnson’s call to accelerate the replacement of every lead pipe in Milwaukee, at no cost to homeowners, and prioritizing neighborhoods where lead levels are highest. We urge the Common Council to get behind Milwaukee’s lead-free future, and ensure that we have the local capacity and funding in place to meet this moment. By working together, we can make sure future generations are safe from lead poisoning, and can go to school healthy and ready to learn.

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