WEST ALLIS — The city invited more than 400 homeowners to spend $1,600 to get new water laterals that don't have lead in them, and they snapped up the offer in days.
West Allis has a $500,000 grant from the state Department of Natural Resources to help get rid of lead laterals, which are the responsibility of homeowners. That grant will only pay for 150 homes, and the open slots went fast.
Laterals bring water from water mains in the street to homes and businesses. The Environmental Protection Agency has deemed lead a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels. In children, low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, resulting in learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells, according to the EPA.
"As soon as the cards went out, they were snatched up, immediately," said Alderman Gary Barczak, chairman of the public works committee. "I think people are concerned" because of the disastrous lead situation that happened in Flint, Michigan, he said.
That is a completely different situation than West Allis has, but it raised awareness of lead in water, he said.
"We were wondering how successful the program was going to be," acknowledged Alderman Tom Lajsic, because homeowners have to put out their own money. "But it's very successful."
However, it's only a drop in the bucket.
There are an estimated 10,000 lead water laterals in the city, according to city officials. The cost of replacing them all would cost as much as $50 million, Assistant City Engineer Joseph Burtch said in a memo to the public works committee. It could take 50 years to get the lead out, he said.
Even though the goal is far away, Michael Lewis, director of the department of public works, said "it's important to start plugging along at it."
With so much need and so little money, the city is focusing first on homes where the city has already replaced its section of laterals with copper pipes that go from the water main to the curb. Private laterals take water from curbs to homes.
The city has replaced 1,500 public sections of laterals, Burtch said. Homeowners where the city has already replaced public sections of laterals with copper pipe are being offered the chance to replace their private portion from curb to home at a bargain price.
Replacing laterals usually costs $4,500 to $5,000, Burtch said. It won't cost the city that much because it is offering a single construction contract for the work, yielding a volume price, and because competitive bidding gives the best price, Burtch said.
He did, however, offer a caveat.
"In many ways this work is creating a false sense of security," Burtch wrote. "Even with complete lead line removal there may still be lead in the household plumbing and fixtures along with other sources of lead such as lead paint."