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EPA Looks to Wisconsin for Leadership in Replacing Lead Pipes

Workers took nearly a decade to replace every lead water pipe in Madison, Wis., but now the city and state are helping other communities struggling with the problem. (Madison Water Utility)
Workers took nearly a decade to replace every lead water pipe in Madison, Wis., but now the city and state are helping other communities struggling with the problem. (Madison Water Utility)
April 11, 2016

MADISON, Wis. - Several years ago, long before the crisis in Flint, Mich., Madison became the first community in the nation to replace all lead water pipes.

Several other Wisconsin communities – including Green Bay, Wausau, Kaukauna, Marshfield and others – either have replacement programs under way or are exploring the cost.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now looks to Wisconsin, specifically to Madison, for information that will help other communities across the nation dealing with lead pipes.

Amy Barrilleaux, public information officer for the Madison Water Utility, says there are many elements involved.

"It all points to the very critical issue of aging water infrastructure in this country," Barrilleaux explains. "It's not just lead, it's so many things that we really need to look at, because most places this infrastructure was put in in the 1920s, the 1930s, and now is the time we really need to look at it."

Barrilleaux says the battle to replace the lead pipes dragged on for years in Madison before the project began.

She says the huge and expensive program didn't get national attention until the crisis in Flint, and now the Madison Water Utility is able to share expertise to help other communities undertaking the project.

According to Barrilleaux, it took a massive amount of inter-agency teamwork in Madison to finally get the ball rolling.

"And we were able to get 80 percent of the pipes replaced in just the first few years of the program," she says. "It was a very targeted effort; it involved everybody, just about, at the utility, and it also involved a whole lot of people within the community - a lot of plumbers, a lot of experts to really make it happen."

Barrilleaux says Madison had a slight head start because it stopped using lead pipes back in the 1920s, but some communities across the country still were using lead pipes until the 1980s. Still, she adds, there still were a lot of hurdles to be cleared.

"It was getting the permission from the agencies that oversee us," she says. "Getting the lawmakers to support the idea and it was getting the community to rally around it as well. We decided to try and move in that direction in 1996 or 1997, and it was 2001 when we actually started the program."

The city finished the project, replacing more than 8,000 lead water lines, in 2012.

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI