After decades of forcing Chicagoans to install lead water lines in their homes, the city is finally launching a program to remove them.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday announced Chicago’s inaugural plan to address its huge inventory of toxic lead lines – a problem that was exacerbated by some mayors, ignored by others and is now being cautiously approached by the latest.
“This is an important first step in a long overdue process,” Lightfoot said at a press conference with officials from the city’s Water and Public Health Departments.
With 400,000 lead service lines lurking beneath Chicago homes, the city faces the worst documented lead line problem in the nation. About 80 percent of all Chicago homes are still connected to water mains through these lines, which can release lead into drinking water. Voluntary tests in Chicago detected lead in more than two thirds of all homes tested. And about one third of all tested homes had more lead in their water than is allowed in bottled water.
National health authorities stress that no level of lead exposure is safe, as it can contribute to heart attacks, hypertension and kidney problems in adults and impulsivity and learning difficulties in children.
The mayor says her team is still gathering information on the cost of the lead line replacement program, but she estimated it could run about $8.5 billion. The first step of the plan includes replacing lead lines for low-income residents whose tests have shown high levels of lead in their water.
But city documents show that officials only expect to replace 400 to 800 of those lines in the first year. That prompted a rare bit of criticism from 36th Ward Ald. Gilbert Villegas, the mayor’s City Council floor leader and a staunch Lightfoot ally.
“This is a start but at 750 out of 400,000 lines [to] be replaced next year, the project should be done by 2553,” Villegas tweeted Thursday morning.
Lightfoot pushed back against Villegas’ timeline, but she didn’t present a more specific one of her own, except to say it would be “a multi-year process.” A Water Department presentation characterizes the timeline for removal as taking “multiple decades.”
How will City Hall pay for it?
As for funding: The city is counting on a Community Development Block Grant for the low-income residents’ replacements in the coming year and state and federal grants for much of the rest of it.
“The reality is, this is an $8.5 billion program and that money doesn’t exist right now but we are aggressively investigating further assistance we can get from the state and federal government,” Lightfoot said.
The plan also proposes to waive costly fees associated with line replacement for homeowners who chose to pay for their own removal work. The mayor says she will propose the fee waiver this year and hopes to have it available to homeowners next year. A third step will include piloting lead line removal on a block where the city is already replacing the water mains.
Last month, Lightfoot indirectly blasted Mayor Rahm Emanuel for not employing this dual replacement strategy as his administration tore up hundreds of miles of streets for water main work – without replacing a single residential line in the process. Officials in Detroit have been replacing their lead service lines during water main replacement and saving $1,500 to $2,000 per line, according to water department officials there.
In fact dozens of other cities – and even Chicago suburbs – have already started and finished lead line replacement programs. These include Denver, Cincinnati, Gary, Ind., Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, Mich., Philadelphia and more.
How did Chicago’s lead pipe problem get so bad?
Chicago ended up with the nation’s largest counted inventory of lead service lines largely because of political clout and plumber-friendly building codes. The city’s code forced residents to install lead lines for decades and was only changed in 1986 when lead service lines were banned federally.
Even as late as April 1986, the powerful Chicago Plumbers Union, which endorsed Lightfoot, was lobbying the city to resist changing the code to allow for other pipe materials aside from lead. The union had a financial interest in keeping the lead pipes around, as only a licensed union plumber could install lead lines.
Lightfoot’s office did not respond immediately to questions about what, if anything, her administration would do to prevent the union from benefiting from lucrative contracts to remove a problem that it contributed to.
Water expert calls city’s plan a big step
Lightfoot may face criticism for the modest scope of the plan from some. But retired water expert for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Miguel del Toral, who has been highlighting the issue for years, was elated by the news.
“It felt great to hear this,” he told WBEZ Thursday. “God bless the mayor for having the courage to do that.”
Del Toral thinks the mayor’s plan has value beyond finally digging the toxic pipes out of the ground.
“It’s more important than just starting [removal], it’s finally acknowledging it’s a problem,” he said. “Now maybe more people will take it seriously and will use filters and take precautions.”
These precautions include using water filters that remove lead and, as the city recommends on its website, flushing faucets for five minutes before consumption if the water hasn’t been run for several hours.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org