Politically Toxic: Tom Barrett and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District

By: Brian Sikma & Dan Woltornist

Political ties and massive waste dumps into Lake Michigan mark Mayor Tom Barrett’s influence on the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District. With its governing board stacked with his appointees, a majority of whom have contributed to his campaign coffers, and with its reputation tarnished after massive sewage waste dumps into Lake Michigan, MMSD has not been a bright spot in the mayor’s record. Nonetheless, major environmental groups in Wisconsin have endorsed him in his gubernatorial run in the recall election.

While running for mayor of Milwaukee in 2003, Barrett was critical of the sewage district and promised to overhaul the MMSD to eliminate the dumping of raw sewage into the Great Lakes ecosystem. “The sewerage district’s number one priority must be clean water,” he proclaimed in an outline of proposed MMSD reforms posted on his campaign website. Less than 24 months later the district had pumped almost 1.6 billion gallons of sewage into Lake Michigan.

Fulfillment of the promise to “restore the public confidence in the district,” and “deliver clean and healthy water” has not been quickly forthcoming from the mayor’s leadership. Data from the district itself shows that since Barrett became mayor the amount of sewage annually released into Lake Michigan has remained statistically the same.

It’s not for a lack of power to change anything that the sewage problem remains as bad as it was before Barrett became mayor over eight years ago. Of the eleven commissioners on the district’s board, seven are direct appointments by the mayor of Milwaukee. Barrett has appointed all seven current City of Milwaukee representatives on the board.

Six of those Barrett appointees are political contributors who have contributed an average of $2,000 each to his campaigns. Almost all of them were contributors before their appointment to the MMSD, and a few have continued to give after joining the board. Board members do receive a salary for their service.

MMSD itself admits that it has pumped over 10.5 billion gallons of raw sewage into Lake Michigan since 2004. Meaning that since he became mayor, Barrett has continued to fall short of his goal of completely eliminating the sewage dumps. In fact, a chart prepared by MMSD shows almost no change in the amount of sewage the district flushes into the Great Lakes ecosystem every year.

Experts say that the waste, if left to the natural flow of the water, will continue to pose a threat to the ecosystem for nearly a century. Human health is also at stake and a joint report by the MMSD, Great Lakes Water Institute, and University of Wisconsin Milwaukee concluded that “even a low amount of human sources [in the sewage] may carry pathogens and therefore could pose a significant health risk.” The study classified the deliberate dumping of raw sewage and chronic sewage infrastructure shortcomings (which are the responsibility of the MMSD) as heightened public health risks.

Despite this dismal record of massive waste dumps generating an ongoing environmental crisis for the local ecosystem, and an ongoing threat to an entire larger ecosystem, several environmental groups have nonetheless endorsed  Barrett in his campaign against Governor Walker in the recall election.  The Sierra Club, The Clean Wisconsin Action Fund, and the League of Conservation Voters are some of the most notable of these environmental groups.

Just what these environmental groups are using to judge the environmental records of the gubernatorial candidates is open to question when each of them without fail backs the candidate responsible for one of the worst ongoing clean water disasters in recent state history.  They appear to be suspending their principles in hopes of achieving a partisan outcome and it is difficult to argue that these groups are genuinely concerned about the Great Lake ecosystem and residents that rely on the water supply of Lake Michigan when they endorse a candidate responsible for pollution of this magnitude.

While the water of Lake Michigan around the City of Milwaukee may be far from clear when the murky brown sludge is flushed out of the sewage system, what is abundantly clear is Mayor Barrett’s inability to use his leadership to fulfill a basic campaign promise. It is clear that while stacking the MMSD board with political appointees the mayor has substituted real leadership for political grandstanding. And maybe that works for him. The environmental groups bent on partisan games have endorsed him, and his bet that voters will overlook his record in their frustration with his opponent may yet pay off.

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