Environmentalists, unions promote federal infrastructure bills to fix water problems

In Blue-Green Alliance presentation, advocates call for both bipartisan and budget bills to pass Congress

By: - October 20, 2021 6:45 am

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Environmental advocates and union representatives teamed up Tuesday to urge passage of both parts of the Biden administration’s infrastructure initiative in order to address a wide range of water quality problems in the state.

“Too many Wisconsin families cannot rely on access to clean drinking water,” said Richard Diaz, an organizer for the Blue-Green Alliance, which sponsored a news conference on Zoom Tuesday with the National Wildlife Federation. The Blue-Green Alliance is an advocacy partnership between the environmental movement and organized labor.

Participants in the virtual news conference emphasized the need to remove lead water service pipes in urban communities, contamination from factory farms in rural wells and the rapidly spreading discoveries of water supplies throughout the state poisoned by PFAS “forever chemicals” — all of which are included in the legislation. And they pointed to those projects as opportunities to create highly skilled, good-paying jobs.

Congressional leaders and the Biden administration have parceled the ambitious agenda between two separate pieces of legislation. One bill focuses on infrastructure; it has already passed the Senate with support from 10 Republicans. The other is a budget reconciliation package that under Senate rules cannot be blocked by a filibuster, making it possible to pass without any Republican votes in the chamber. That budget package has come to be known as the “Build Back Better Act,” and negotiations over its specifics have focused on securing support from two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Participants in Tuesday’s news conference, though, focused their attention on Rep. Ron Kind (D-La Crosse), who is “a really key vote on this,” said Jeremy Gragert of the National Wildlife Federation.

Gragert, a resident of Eau Claire, said his community is grappling with lead service lines that need replacing as well as recently identified PFAS contamination.

“It’s really an equity and justice issue,” said Gragert. “The bipartisan deal doesn’t really go far enough in terms of funding [to replace] lead service lines.” That legislation covers about half of what is required, he said. To complete the job, “we really need the Build Back Better Act as well.”

Eau Claire city council member Andrew Werthmann said the city’s own lead pipe replacement efforts began after the national attention to a lead scandal in Flint, Mich., where residents “had been drinking contaminated lead-poisoned water for years without knowing.”

Werthmann said about 1,200 homes in Eau Claire were served by lead pipes. Although the city has been treating water with lime to coat the pipes and prevent lead from leaching into the water, “we knew that the absolute safest thing that we needed to do was to remove all lead pipes from our system.”

With federal grants the city has replaced about 400 systems, reimbursing property owners for the cost. The two infrastructure bills would ensure that Eau Claire can afford to finish the job in the next couple of years, Werthmann said.

The legislation also calls for replacing lead fixtures, pipes and plumbing that are in schools and child care centers. “Schools and day cares across the state, everywhere from Janesville to Middleton to Milwaukee, have reported lead-contaminated drinking water,” said Megan Severson, the state director for Wisconsin Environment. “The only way to really ensure that our drinking water for our children is safe is to get the lead out of our schools and our day cares.”

Eau Claire has also been grappling with PFAS chemical pollution, which has contaminated city wells. Those wells have been shut down, but to continue testing water while taking measures to remedy the pollution, “we’re going to need upfront funding for our city to ensure that clean drinking water is available for every single family,” said Werthmann. “This isn’t just in Eau Claire. This is happening in La Crosse. It’s happening in Milwaukee. It’s happening in large and small communities across our state.”

Rural water systems also need help promised by the current outlines for the legislation, said La Crosse County Board member Jamie O’Neill. When residents of one La Crosse County community learned that a nearby concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, was leaking and responsible for increased levels of nitrites from waste in 2005, they tried unsuccessfully to prevent the permit from being renewed. “Now a third of those residents cannot safely drink the water from their wells,” O’Neill said. “We need to do better.”

Jennifer Giegerich of Wisconsin Conservation Voters said that another component of the Build Back Better budget package would provide resources for rural communities to reduce farm pollution and protect drinking water. About 1.7 million Wisconsin residents get their household water from private wells, and nearly half of them, Giegerich said, are reportedly contaminated “by one or more pollutants at levels above public health standards.”

The budget bill supports farm practices to reduce pollution, she said, while it also funnels money to develop rural small water supply systems and household well and wastewater systems.

Side by side with the public health case, union representatives Greg Erickson and Steve Breitlow focused on the potential for the legislation to foster good jobs, bolstered by union representation. Both represent locals in the United Association, the union that includes plumbers, pipefitters and related trades.

Erickson promoted the skills and efficiency that trained union workers would bring to the job of repairing and replacing the nation’s water infrastructure. He also called for using American-made materials for the work.

Breitlow quoted an American Society of Civil Engineers estimate that Wisconsin will need to spend up to $8.6 billion over the next two decades to bring its water infrastructure up to date. “This investment in public health and long-term economic viability will not get less expensive by continuing to kick it down the road to future generations,” he said.

In Milwaukee, where some 70,000 lead service lines have remained in use, about 4,000 have so far been replaced at a cost of $9,000 to $11,000 per service line, he added, and the numbers of contractors certified to do those repairs has been growing.

Funds will be needed from the federal government to make it happen, however, Breitlow said. Once that is in place, the union’s members “are trained and ready to get to work building back better.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.