Environmental group argues Wisconsin’s gerrymandered maps disenfranchise parents of lead poisoned children

By: - November 14, 2023 11:46 am
From left, a lead pipe, a corroded steel pipe, and a lead pipe treated with protective orthophosphate. Lead pipes cause health problems and drive up water bills. Photo courtesy Environmental Protection Agency.

From left, a lead pipe, a corroded steel pipe, and a lead pipe treated with protective orthophosphate. Lead pipes cause health problems and drive up water bills. (Photo courtesy Environmental Protection Agency)

Wisconsin’s legislative maps, which are drawn to heavily favor Republicans, have disempowered parents on the North Side of Milwaukee, preventing them from pushing their elected representatives to work toward removing the lead pipes that remain in their neighborhoods, a legal brief filed on Monday by an environmental group argues. 

The “friend of the court brief” filed by Midwest Environmental Advocates on behalf of the Coalition on Lead Emergency (COLE) — an organization aimed at responding to childhood lead poisoning in Milwaukee  — argues that during the last three state budgets, Republicans have refused to update Wisconsin’s definition of lead poisoning to meet federal standards, declined to speed up the removal of lead service lines across the state Wisconsin and prevented local governments from requiring rental properties to be inspected for lead. 

A report released last week by the Wisconsin Policy Forum found that while the state has removed tens of thousands of lead service lines — the pipes that connect a home’s plumbing to the municipal water system — over the last few decades, 150,000 of them remain. Milwaukee has the largest share of the remaining lead service lines, with 44% of them in the city. While the city has planned to continue replacing lead pipes every year, it will take two decades to remove its estimated 70,000 lead service lines. 

In refusing to include funding for removals, Republicans in the Legislature have complained that too much of the money would go to Milwaukee. 

“Legislative maps with partisan bias have helped retrench an environmental injustice — children suffering from lead poisoning,” the legal brief states. “Partisan maps empower and disempower various Wisconsin communities based on geography. As COLE Parents have advocated for state government to take action to address a tragedy that disproportionately affects them and their families because of where they live, they have been systemically disadvantaged by biased legislative maps that politically disempower them — because of where they live. Legislatures elected under maps with partisan bias have repeatedly and expressly disregarded COLE Parents’ concerns — even citing the geographical distribution of lead-related concerns as a reason not to act.”

Milwaukee’s problems with lead poisoning are especially bad on the city’s North Side. The associated health defects have been tied to hindered neurological development, underperformance in school and an increased likelihood of being incarcerated. 

The brief argues that redrawn legislative maps would mean elected representatives who are more responsive to these types of targeted environmental problems. 

“In addition to lead poisoning, many other environmental issues unevenly impact certain geographical parts of the state,” MEA Executive Director Tony Wilkin Gibart said in a statement. “Our state constitution requires all Wisconsinites to have free and equal opportunities to effectively advocate for state actions to protect a healthy environment for their families. COLE’s experiences show this goal requires maps that empower and are responsive to all voters.” 

Oral arguments in the redistricting lawsuit are set for Nov. 21.


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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.