Mar 8, 5:09 PM EST

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



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 some opposition.

Opponents could take issue with updated language in the bill that requires the Public Service Commission to consider the cost of utility companies' lead service line replacement financing programs when setting rates. Cowles made the change after utility companies said the bill would have little impact without it.

Utility companies, realtors and environmental groups showed up in support of the measure, arguing that protecting public health in exchange for negligible rate increases is a no-brainer.

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 lead service line removals. And Green Bay Water Utility engineering service manager Brian Powell 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.

Cowles' spokesman, Jason Mugnaini, said the office hasn't heard from anyone against the measure yet. The bill allows municipalities and utilities to decide how they want to structure the financing programs, which could come in the form of grants or low-interest loans.

The Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin, which advocates for utility ratepayers, did not immediately respond to a message.

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