Reality Check

Reality Check: Ad Accuses Barrett Of Dumping Sewage In Lake Michigan

Milwaukee's Mayor Doesn't Directly Authorize Sewage Overflows

MADISON, Wis. - WISC-TV is continuing its We the People Wisconsin Fact Finder reports by looking at an ad in the governor's race in which Republican Scott Walker accused Democrat Tom Barrett of dumping sewage in Lake Michigan.

Dottie Leclaire of Sun Prairie asked: "Scott Walker is accusing Tom Barrett of dumping sewage into Lake Michigan, and not keeping a campaign promise. Can you explain?"

"When Tom Barrett campaigned for mayor of Milwaukee six years ago, he promised to stop the sewage district from dumping raw sewage into Lake Michigan," the ad says. "He never kept that campaign promise."

A WISC-TV analysis found this part is true. Barrett did in fact campaign on this issue in 2004, saying he'd set a goal to stop sewage dumping on a regular basis. But it hasn't stopped.

"In fact, Tom Barrett allowed 8.2 billion gallons of sewage to be released into the lake, nearly 40 times more pollution than the BP oil spill," says the ad.

A WISC-TV analysis found this is misleading. Walker is literally comparing oil and water, two very different kinds of pollution. Plus, he's only citing volume. It's estimated that 205 million gallons of oil spilled into the gulf. Multiply by 40 and it totals 8.2 billion. But the Walker campaign actually under-estimated overflow amounts. According to the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District, it's more like 10.3 billion gallons since 2004.

But by no means do oil and sewage have the same effects on water quality. According to Great Lakes water researcher Sandra McLellan, sewage is a huge concern in the lakes, but it has a short-term impact. Oil is toxic and can affect the environment for years, she said.

It's also important to understand why sewage is let into the lakes in the first place. During big storms, rainwater and untreated sewage will back up into basements if the water isn't let out of city sewers. This summer was a prime example as 5-8 eight inches of rain fell in a day around Milwaukee. Just that rainfall exceeded the capacity of the sewers by just more than 2 billion gallons, WISC-TV reported.

The sewage district has added more than 100 million gallons in capacity since 2006, but to create enough capacity to hold the rains from this summer it would cost more than $6 billion. Plus, they have drastically decreased the number of overflows from 50 or 60 a year in the 1990s to an average of 2.5 times a year.

Finally, while the mayor of Milwaukee appoints seven people to the sewage district board, he doesn't directly authorize overflows. That's done by the sewage district executive director alone.

"Tom Barrett broke his promise," says the ad. "Well, I say its time to flush out the truth."

Was it realistic for Barrett to say he could stop overflows from happening? While that's always the goal, probably not, unless he can stop it from raining, WISC-TV reported.

And for those who asked, the voiceover in the ad is not, in fact, Morgan Freeman, but a voiceover actor hired out of Hales Corners.

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