By Cara Lombardo
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Almost 50 legislators from both parties have signed onto a measure that would let utility companies raise rates to help customers replace dangerous lead service lines.
Still, its sponsor, Republican Sen. Robert Cowles of Green Bay, warned supporters at the bill’s Senate committee hearing Wednesday to expect opposition.
Opponents could criticize revised language in the bill that would require the Public Service Commission to consider the cost that utility companies incur for financing lead service line replacements when setting rates. Cowles made the change after utility companies said the bill would be relatively ineffective without it.
Utility companies, realtors and environmental groups showed up in support of the measure, arguing that a proposal to protect public health in exchange for negligible rate increases should not be a subject of controversy.
At least 176,000 Wisconsin homes and businesses get water through lead service lines. Lead from the lines can flake off into water and cause permanent brain damage in young children. Replacing each line can cost several thousand dollars.
“No one needs to be told that lead is toxic and should not be in our drinking water,” Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor said at the hearing. “But what you might not know is how long-lasting and wide-ranging the effects of lead poisoning are.”
She said elevated lead levels in children can permanently decrease IQs by several points. Taylor represents a district in Milwaukee, which has almost half of the lead service lines in the state.
Ed St. Peter, general manager of Kenosha Water Utility, estimated that each customer’s water bill would increase $1.40 per month if the utility put $500,000 toward financing the removal of lead service lines. Brian Powell, Green Bay Water Utility engineering service manager, said the legislation could be powerful enough to eliminate lead service lines from the state.
“With this, we could surely rid Green Bay of all lead services within four years,” Powell said.
The Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin, which advocates for utility ratepayers, did not immediately respond to a message.