Photo Credit: WisPolitics.com, Creative Commons 2.0
In mid-January, Milwaukee mayor, Tom Barrett, fired the Health Commissioner, Bevan Baker – a move activist Robert Miranda said was insufficient in the wake of widespread lead poisoning. Miranda and a group of protesters met outside Barrett’s office just four days after Baker was let go, calling for the Mayor’s resignation and the commencement of an investigation by the US Attorney’s office. Miranda alleged that the mayor’s office dragged its feet when it was asked to release data pertaining to home water tests because those tests never happened.
“The removal of Commissioner Bevan Baker is not the end-all be-all. It’s not even the peak of the iceberg. We have a massive coverup in this city over lead in our water,” said Miranda, who is president of the citizen group Freshwater for Life Action Coalition. He went on to suggest that this cover up goes well beyond the mayor, to the upper reaches of state government. “It isn’t going to be all on the mayor. It’s on the governor, too.”
Local radio show host, Earl Ingram commented on the salience of the protest, which came on the heels of Martin Luther King Day. “If Dr. King was alive today, he would be marching on this.”
Memo Warns of Risk to Children
Samuel Alford, of the local NAACP chapter, spoke of the disproportionate impact that lead-poisoning has on children. “They’re getting poisoned at home and they’re getting poisoned at school,” he said. And he’s not wrong. According to a Journal Sentinel Report, a memo was sent to the Health Commissioner’s office, warning officials of the risks for children whose water travels through decaying lead pipes before reaching their internal organs. The memo’s author, Paul Biedrzycki, was “dumbfounded” when he saw a lack of action after he sent the memo. “I firmly believed that my summary would create a sense of urgency and action on the part of the city in short order,” he said. The note specifically stated that replacing water mains would aggravate the lead problem.
Failure to Warn
Baker, who was Commissioner at the time, failed to bring up the memo at a meeting concerning the pipes in question. Present at the meeting were Mayor Barrett and Carrie Lewis, then-Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent. Barrett vehemently denied having heard about the memo, but Lewis has said she doesn’t remember either way.
Others, like Alderman Michael Murphy, have expressed surprise at the fact that Barrett never heard of the memo. “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.”
Mayor Took Steps Mentioned in Memo
The mayor addressed the lead problem in a 2016 press conference, when he urged city residents to use water filters before drinking water. Oddly, this was one of the suggestions in Biedrzycki’s memo. The memo clearly warned against the furtherance of a major water-main project, which if carried out could jostle the lead pipes. “Any increase in lead exposure through increase in concentrations within drinking water would be considered adverse by public health authorities and unacceptable,” Biedrzycki wrote.
Biedrzycki was, himself, warned of the lead-related dangers by Michael Schock, a scientist at the EPA. Shock told Biedrzycki, “Basically, people with lead pipes are drinking the water through permanently lead-painted straws, even with good corrosion control in place.”
Milwaukee isn’t the only city with a major lead problem. In fact, lead poisoning might constitute what some call a “silent epidemic.” In cities like Cleveland, tens of thousands of old homes, with lead-painted walls, are at risk of lead poisoning. An investigative report, published by The Cleveland Plain Dealer, found that nearly 10,000 children had suffered from lead poisoning during a 5-year period. Many of those affected were from low-income houses in mainly African American and Latinx communities.
According to activists like Miranda and reporters at the Plain Dealer, massive lead poisoning could be prevented with effective city management and adequate accountability. As far as Miranda is concerned, that might begin with the ousting of Mayor Barrett.