I-Team: Wisconsin expert says federal water rule misses health risks

Posted at 10:28 PM, Nov 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-16 23:56:04-05
Murky, with particles floating in it.
That's how some people in Wisconsin describe the water coming from their faucet. It turns out a water supply can meet federal standards but still might not be safe to drink.
Contaminated drinking water has been making headlines across the country, but this is a problem you likely haven't heard about: Inmates at two Wisconsin prisons believe there's something in the water and say their complaints have been ignored.  
The I-Team found orders from the state to clean up the water, at one of those prisons, more than once in the past seven years.
Carl Fields spent 15 years in prison, some of that time at Waupun Correctional Institution.  
"The metal, the flecks in the water, it's undeniable. I've seen it a hundred different times." Fields said. "I had to drink the water. There were no other options."
Released this past March, Fields is trying to raise awareness about what he calls consistent problems with the water, water he says inmates were told is safe to drink.  
"I assumed what the memo said was pretty accurate. Let it run for a few minutes. It'll be alright," he said.
According to Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources' database, in 2014 high lead levels were found in the water at Waupun Correctional -- enough to violate the federal lead rule.
It also shows problems at Fox Lake Correctional. High levels of lead and copper detected on and off for at least seven years. Because of that ,the DNR issued an order requiring Fox Lake to address copper and lead levels. A notice about lead in the drinking water is still posted above the water fountain in the prison's public area.
Beverly Walker's husband, Baron, was incarcerated at Fox Lake when the water tested above the maximum level for metals.  
"It's just unfair that they don't have the opportunity to consume clean water," she commented.  
Denied an in-person interview by the Department of Corrections, we talked to Baron by phone.  
"I couldn't even bathe because the water's brown like mud or coffee," he said. "They could not wash the dishes and couldn't use the dishes to feed us."
Afraid of repercussions, Walker filed an inmate complaint this summer after he was transferred to a different prison. It was rejected.
"We second class citizens, probably even less. So nobody's concerned about us," Walker said.
The DOC sent TODAY'S TMJ4 a statement saying, in part, it's in compliance with the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, but Madison chemical engineer, Abigail Cantor, said that doesn't mean water coming from every tap is safe.  
"The Lead and Copper Rule has flaws," she said.
Cantor helps water utilities comply with that rule and believes the EPA standard can miss high levels.  
"The EPA knew that no one water utility could go to every building and every faucet in a system..." she said. "So it's designed to detect system-wide problems. Ten percent of all samples have to be above maximum levels to be in violation. It's not a health-based system; it's not determining the risk."
The standard doesn't account for hot spots.  
In 2015, Waupun had one sample where the lead level was eight times the federal limit. And in a two-year period at Fox Lake, ten individual samples were over the limit for copper.  
"This is not healthy, it can't be," Fields said.
He doesn't agree with the DOC's claim the water is safe and hopes more people will start paying attention.  
"I say the people who saying that, that we just get a glass of water and let them drink it on camera," he said.