Racine residents will likely have access to a forgivable loan program aimed at helping property owners replace the lead pipes that connect to utility-owned water lines.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is making about $12 million available to some municipalities in the state that have old lead service lines that bring drinking water into homes. The funds, which are being made available through the U.S. EPA, are being administered by the state.

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan — which saw 1,000s of children suffer from lead poisoning — has heightened the state’s vigilance about the issue of having high levels of lead in water, which is known to cause physical and mental impairments in adults and children, according to a story by the New York Times.

Lead levels in some Racine residents’ municipal water were nearly double the allowable levels in 2014. A letter from the utility, sent on October 5, 2015, notified residents that 5,025 of the 33,500 property owners in 2014 were at risk of high lead levels, which is just over the U.S. EPA  standard of 15 parts per billion. Some properties lead levels were as high as 25 ppb, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“Wisconsin is again in the lead, moving rapidly to implement solutions that address the needs of communities and individuals,” said DNR secretary Cathy Stepp. “Governor Scott Walker asked us to rise to the challenge of helping the most communities possible and by using the funding available, we have taken a significant step forward to ensure clean, safe drinking water across the state.”

The city spends about $300,000 a year to replace the publicly owned lines. But they have about six weeks to apply for a portion of the money. Disadvantaged municipalities that have high unemployment rates and lower median household incomes will be given priority. Because Racine has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, it could see up to $500,000 additional dollars to help fund the work.

Racine Water Utility general manager Keith Haas plans to apply for the Lead Service Line Replacement Funding program. The funds will help residents, schools and day care centers pay for replacing the service lines that extend from the main street pipes the utilities own to their properties.

“With Flint being in the news, there’s more interest in it,” Haas said. “But communities have dealt with this and struggled with having lead for a long time. We’ve been replacing the lead pipes for years.”

While cities have been tackling the issue at the public infrastructure level for years, the privately owned lines have not always been replaced by property owners and that is largely due to cost. To mitigate the problem, the city uses a chemical liner that prevents the lead from getting into the drinking water. But when municipalities are replacing the publicly owned infrastructure and the privately owned lines aren’t replaced, studies have showed that the those liners can be disturbed and ineffective, Haas said.

“The feds are willing to pump money into the states to address this problem,” Haas said. “So Wisconsin drafted a plan where residents and some property owners can apply for forgivable loans.”

The city may also be eligible for a principal forgiveness loan for its water main replacement fund. If the city qualifies for the additional funds, it would help offset the utility’s capital costs and the savings would be passed along to ratepayers.

“The ratepayers would want me to do the responsible thing and I would be chastised if I didn’t go after this money to offset our capital costs,” Haas said.

 

 

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.