Dane County jail inmates getting protection from elevated lead levels in water
Years after fixing similar problems in other parts of the building, facilities staff have begun installing filters to address elevated lead levels in drinking water reported last year in the Dane County Jail’s aging cell block on the sixth and seventh floors of the City-County Building.
“It’s just one more nail in the coffin of why this jail needs to be replaced,” said Sheriff Dave Mahoney, who has long argued for the CCB portion of the county’s jail system to be shut down due to safety and security deficiencies.
Mahoney most often has cited obvious physical flaws in the jail, such as failing locks and obstructed views leading to increased risk of fire, suicide, and sexual assault. But the water coming out of jailhouse taps, while it may look harmless, can be dangerous for inmates as well, he said. “Mainly because they have no other options.”
“It’s different if you can bring your own water from home, and a lot of employees (throughout the CCB) do that,” Mahoney said. “But when you have people confined against their will, incarcerated here for up to a year, and the only water they can consume (may have) lead in it, that’s a major concern. That needs to change.”
CCB facilities management staff said lead is leaching into the water as a zinc-based coating that contains a small amount of lead — applied decades ago to protect the pipes in a process known as galvanization — begins to corrode.
Excessive lead is a serious health concern for children and adults, with no safe blood lead level identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for children and elevated levels in adults contributing to a host of adverse health effects on all organs and body functions.
For lead in drinking water, the Environmental Protection Agency has set a limit of 15 parts per billion.
Officials have known for at least 16 years about excessive lead in water from drinking fountains and sink spigots in parts of the CCB, which besides the jail on the top two building floors also houses many city of Madison and Dane County administrative departments and agencies.
Built in the 1950s
The seven-story Downtown building at 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. was built in 1956. Elevated lead levels were first detected in some drinking fountains in tests done in November 2000, after discolored water was found to be discharging from one fountain, according to a timeline provided to the State Journal by Greg Brockmeyer, director of facilities management at the CCB.
In response to the elevated levels, all drinking fountains in the building in 2000 were tested for lead — except in the jail, where testing was “more limited,” officials said — and those fountains with elevated levels were shut off.
In the CCB jail, the tests done in 2000 showed lead levels were well below the national standard, ranging from 1.3 to 5.7 ppb, according to Carlos Pabellon, Dane County’s director of administration. But only five drinking water fountains and one sink in the jail were tested.
As periodic testing of drinking fountains continued, facilities staff in 2006 installed lead filters on kitchenette sinks in newly remodeled areas of the CCB. Staff at that time also replaced all the fountains that had been shut down in 2000 with lead-free filtered drinking fountains.
Then in 2011, more kitchenette faucets were filtered, after the city of Madison asked their departments at the CCB to stop buying bottled water for their employees. Instead, facilities staff added filters to all building kitchenettes.
Then last year, in August, “more thorough” water sampling was done in the CCB jail block, Brockmeyer said, and when some samples came back elevated for lead, every water source in the jail for the first time was tested.
Specifically, tests showed water in at least three of 20 selected jail cells had lead levels over the EPA standard, some of them “significantly higher,” Mahoney said.
“Some were four times that standard,” Mahoney said. “And that’s why we responded as rapidly as we did in the jail when we saw the levels were as high as they were.”
By the end of last year, lead filters had been added to water fountains and sinks as needed in half the jail, Pabellon said. The other half will have filters installed over the next few weeks, in a process underway now.
“Any sources (in the jail) that were elevated were filtered or are scheduled to be filtered,” Brockmeyer said. “Signs were installed (in August) requiring inmates to run the water for two minutes or until cold before drinking. Tests have confirmed that the elevated levels of lead are reduced to acceptable levels if the water is run until cold.”
At Pabellon’s direction, quarterly water testing also was implemented last year in the jail and throughout the CCB, and Brockmeyer had all of the building’s remaining non-filtered drinking water fountains replaced with filtered fountains, including any accessible to the public.
“What (the fountains) have now are these filters in them that alert us to when they’re about to expire,” Pabellon said. “So we have a preventive maintenance system.”
Finally, new signs were placed above all water sources indicating whether the water is filtered and drinkable or whether it should be used for hand-washing only.
The extensive jail water testing last year was done as part of a report to help develop a long-awaited plan to remodel the overall jail system, now spread across three facilities.
The County Board is studying three options to centralize jail inmates in a renovated and expanded Public Safety Building, located across the street from the CCB, while shutting down the CCB jail and the South Side work-release Ferris Center, at a cost of up to $166 million.
Each plan would address jail security concerns, while improving inmate mental health and medical services and expanding work or educational programming, officials say.
The plans also would provide separate space for younger inmates, reduce the use of solitary confinement and drop the total number of beds by 69, as part of a continuing commitment to diversion programs for some inmates.
But because choosing an option and getting it built will take years, the board last year also authorized $4.4 million in emergency improvements to the CCB jail, including the money for the water filtration upgrades.
The rest of the emergency improvements — including $600,000 for new locks, $250,000 for new video surveillance cameras, $75,000 for a smoke management system and $250,000 to replace fixed windows — have not yet begun.
Staff expect to issue a request for proposals for a contractor to supervise the improvements in early April, Pabellon said, with work to begin by June.