Long before Milwaukee lead poisoning fallout, Mayor Tom Barrett's staff was given warning
Reporter Mary Spicuzza reports on Bevan Baker's resignation as Milwaukee health commissioner.
Nearly three years ago, a city expert alerted Mayor Tom Barrett's top health official of the looming threat facing thousands of Milwaukee children who get their drinking water from antiquated lead pipes.
The memo with its warning — that replacing water mains would disturb the pipes and significantly raise lead levels — went nowhere.
“I firmly believed that my summary would create a sense of urgency and action on the part of the city in short order,” said Paul Biedrzycki, who retired in June after years as the city’s director of disease control and environmental health. When that didn’t happen, he said, “I was dumbfounded.”
His 2015 memo went straight to then-Health Commissioner Bevan Baker in preparation for a meeting with the mayor and Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Carrie Lewis.
In a lengthy interview in which Barrett at one point fought back tears, the mayor said Baker never passed along the memo or summarized its list of recommendations. Baker, who did not return repeated calls over the last week, was forced from his post earlier this month as news broke that his agency failed to provide follow-up services to thousands of families with children who had tested positive for lead.
“This is the first time I’ve seen this, just so you’re aware," Barrett said of the Biedrzycki memo dated April 1, 2015. Lewis, who is now general manager of the Portland Maine Water District, said she could not remember whether Biedrzycki's recommendations ever came up during the meeting.
Even without seeing the memo, Barrett said in 2015 he began urging homeowners with lead laterals affected by water main replacements to use filters.
In February 2016, city officials mailed 70,000 letters urging people to flush their pipes and buy lead filters.
Seven months later, Barrett made lead filters a personal priority by holding an impromptu news conference calling on all owners and residents of homes built before 1951 to use them. The city has since begun distributing limited supplies of free water filters to low-income residents of homes with lead service lines.
Widespread use of water filters was one of the recommendations included in Biedrzycki’s memo.
Ald. Michael Murphy said he was struck with "the urgency" conveyed in the memo sent to Baker and how that didn't get passed along to the mayor.
"I'm still perplexed and somewhat amazed how that could have fallen through the cracks," Murphy said. "I'll take the mayor's comments at face value, but to me, it just seems fairly amazing that that had not been communicated — the seriousness of that issue — to him."
Lead, widely used in water pipes until the 1920s and in the solder connecting copper piping until the 1980s, can flake into drinking water, damaging a child's growth and ability to learn. Each year, 25,000 Milwaukee children are tested for lead poisoning and an average of 3,000 per year are found to have elevated levels. Lead paint is widely considered to be the primary source of lead poisoning in Milwaukee.
The mayor referred to his September 2016 decision on the water filters as a personal "epiphany" after participating in a forum with Marc Edwards, a professor of civil engineering from Virginia Tech and one of the country's leading experts on water quality issues. Barrett said he knew little about the ill effects of lead in drinking water when the crisis in Flint, Mich., raised the issue nationally in 2014.
In his interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Barrett denied that his administration intentionally delayed its response to lead-poisoning concerns for fear of causing a panic before the spring 2016 election.
The city mailed out 70,000 letters to Milwaukee residents warning of possible risks of lead exposure frompipes shortly before his primary. Five months after being elected to a fourth term, the Milwaukee Democrat went further, calling for use of water filters in older homes throughout the city.
Growing emotional, the mayor said he would not have put his own family at risk for the sake of political expediency.
“So if you think, if you think, that I did this — my house was built in 1916 — if you think that I would have kept this from my wife and kids,” Barrett said, referring to past criticism that the city covered up the extent of its lead problem. “I was just so offended that you think I would do that to my kids, or any child in this city.”
Barrett said he has been candid with voters, explaining, "The consistency in my actions at every juncture is when I learn something that I felt the public should know, my directive was let the public know."
In short, Barrett added, “If I’m telling my wife, I’m telling the public.”
If the mayor was largely unaware of the issue three years ago, the same cannot be said of some officials in the city Health Department.
“Precedent has been set for water utilities providing water filters to customers affected by partial lead service line replacement projects and doing followup monitoring of in-home drinking water," Benjamin James, then-city lead project coordinator, wrote in an email on Feb. 20, 2015, to several health offices.
Two months later, Baker asked Biedrzycki to prepare a "brief" for his meeting with the mayor on the issue of lead service lines.
Lead is a naturally occurring element in our environment. Its past and current use in several products mean we can be exposed to it from several sources. Lead is particularly dangerous for children under 6 years old.
Biedrzycki, who has spent 25 years working on lead and water issues, warned Baker that the city would risk “significant increase in lead concentrations in drinking water” if it moved forward with the large water main distribution project that would disturb lead service lines, the pipes that carry water to individual homes
Then Biedrzycki went further, suggesting that both the state Division of Public Health and the regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed that the best solution for the city would be "full replacement of lead service lines."
He also suggested, in the meantime, the use of drinking filters, routine testing of drinking water and flushing of the water plumbing prior to drinking water or using it for cooking.
"Any increase in lead exposure through increase in concentrations within drinking water would be considered adverse by public health authorities and unacceptable," Biedrzycki concluded. "This is especially important to note given the tremendous strides the city has made to reduce lead poisoning in young children."
An EPA chemist, Michael Schock, offered a chilling image of the health care risks still faced by many Milwaukee homeowners and residents.
"Basically, people with lead pipes are drinking the water through permanently lead-painted straws, even with good corrosion control in place," Schock wrote Biedrzycki in June 2015.
Rather than pursuing remedies, however, the Barrett administration focused its efforts in 2015 on conducting its own pilot study. The city set out to determine whether replacing water mains would disturb the lead service lines and boost lead levels in drinking water.
That move came after the state's utility agency in 2014 required Milwaukee to replace at least 15 miles of water mains a year.
At the Milwaukee Water Works, Lewis announced plans to do the pilot study in March 2015, a month after informing health officials of the water main project.
Almost from the beginning, city and state health officials questioned the study.
“We are not sure of the exact intent of the pilot in terms of outcomes and usefulness,” Biedrzycki wrote to Lewis at the time.
For one thing, the sample size was small. Only six of the 21 homes invited to participate agreed to do so.
"The pilot wasn't supposed to be statistically significant," Lewis said, stressing that the point was to learn whether the construction work would raise lead levels. Given that the work did, she added, "Don't you think one house would have been enough?"
But there was a more fundamental problem.
By 2015, there was already little doubt that replacing mains was likely to increase the lead in drinking water. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had five years earlier warned health leaders across the country that early study results suggested partial replacement of lead service lines risked increasing blood-lead levels in children.
Schock, the EPA chemist, was more emphatic.
“There is no doubt that partial lead service line replacements can result in significantly elevated levels of lead in tap water and that this contamination can continue for weeks and months,” he told the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
Over the next few years, more published studies reached much the same conclusion, even warning that merely "disturbing" the lines would increase lead levels.
"Although other factors could also influence lead levels, the highest lead results most often were associated with sites having known disturbances to the lead service lines," wrote the authors of a Chicago study published in 2013 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
The study was one of several Biedrzycki said he shared with a member of the mayor's staff, Aaron Szopinski, and fellow health agency colleagues. Szopinski said he does not recall receiving the note.
The study focused on replacing water mains, not lead service lines; experts say doing one affects the other.
Replacing water mains "means the lead service lines will be disturbed. You are doing heavy construction. There will be shaking and vibrations," Edwards, the national expert from Virginia Tech, said in an interview. "This is a hazardous material and there are chunks of lead that can dislodge and will undoubtedly come into the home."
Edwards said the safest practice is for communities to replace all of the lead service lines. As for the necessity of conducting the pilot study to determine whether water main replacement would increase lead levels in the drinking water, he said:
"Unless they've been living in a bunker with earmuffs on, they should know that," he said.
Biedrzycki said the results of the studies were as expected: lead concentrations in the water rose during the water main work — sometimes sharply. In most cases, the levels returned to their baseline a week or two after construction. Some studies have suggested the spike in lead levels can last much longer.
In his interview, Barrett sought to portray the pilot's small sample size as a measure of his concern for safety.
In January 2016, he ordered a moratorium, or "pause," on water main replacement projects in older residential neighborhoods where lead pipes connect municipal water mains to homes based on what his staff had found in the small collection of Milwaukee houses that participated in the study.
“I will use that as a sign of how serious I take this," Barrett said. "I changed the policy of this city based on six houses.”
Barrett acknowledged that he is ultimately responsible for the city’s response to lead water concerns and, in general, is proud of the work being done by his administration. He went so far as to say Milwaukee is “in the vanguard” on the issue.
The city spent about $6.6 million on some 600 full lead lateral replacements in 2017 and included $8.8 million in its 2018 budget to fund 800 full lead lateral replacements. It has spent or budgeted another $435,000 on lead filters and testing since 2016.
If Biedrzycki had a problem with the city’s approach, the mayor said, the health expert should have made that known.
“Paul’s a smart guy and he’s a great communicator,” Barrett said. “If this was a life-and-death issue, why didn’t he get an empty envelope, or an envelope with no name on it, saying, ‘You’re screwing up big time. Deal with this.’ ”
Or, even better, Barrett said Biedrzycki could have gone to the second floor at City Hall to let his concerns be known directly to the mayor.
“I’m not the Wizard of Oz here,” Barrett said. “I don’t kick people out of here, and I’m a pretty approachable guy.”
Biedrzycki said it was impressed upon him during his years with the city that he had to follow the chain of command and that it would have been unacceptable for him to go over Baker's head to bring his concerns to the mayor. In addition, Biedrzycki said one of his supervisors at the city Health Department made it clear that it was important to put up a unified front.
Barrett officials pushed back by providing copies of an email Biedrzycki sent to Szopinski, the mayoral aide, in January 2016 crediting Szopinski for his leadership. Biedrzycki attached a proposed newspaper column he penned declaring Milwaukee’s drinking water “safe” and of “the highest quality in the country.”
It doesn’t appear the article was ever published.
The mayor and his staff described the note as unsolicited, but the exchange actually started with an email from Szopinski saying he was impressed with Biedrzycki’s “ability to come together to deal with tough problems and continue to demonstrate leadership.”
Biedrzycki said he wrote the proposed op-ed at the urging of Patrick Curley, the chief of staff to Barrett, something Curley denies.
Curley went on to say that Biedrzycki oversaw the city's childhood lead prevention program now under investigation by the mayor's office and aldermen.
While he would not discuss details, Curley said, "The investigation to date shows that there were problems going back to 2015 with the follow-up to families where children had elevated lead-blood levels."
Biedrzycki said he did not manage the childhood lead prevention program but supervised the person who did.
"Under no circumstances was I aware of anything in my tenure that smacked of non-notification," Biedrzycki said, noting that in 2016 the city received a $3.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for prevention of lead poisoning.
"You can rest assured," he added, "we would not have gotten that grant if there were any problems."
Dan Bice and Mary Spicuzza talk about their story that puts a focus on former Health Commissioner Bevan Baker