Chicago Has More Lead Service Pipes Than Any Other US City, Illinois the Most of Any State | Chicago News
Illinois has more lead-water pipes than any other state in the nation, and Chicago more than any other city.
Illinois may have up to a quarter of all lead supply lines in the country, according to Senator Tammy Duckworth, who leads the call for a bipartisan infrastructure bill to rebuild the country’s water systems.
Citing data from a Chicago Tribune report last week, Duckworth had this to say when this bill was passed unanimously by the Senate committee on Wednesday:
“Between 2015 and 2020, tap water readings in dozens of homes in Illinois showed hundreds and even thousands of parts per billion of lead. These extreme values correspond to those found by researchers in Flint, Michigan, over the same period. As with many problems in our nation, this lead contamination is often the worst in black and brown communities. “
We spoke to Jeremy Orr, senior attorney with the Defense Council for Natural Resources in Chicago, about the issue, where he is focusing on the Safe Water Council initiative.
The following questions and answers have been summarized and edited for length and clarity.
Illinois has more lead supplies than any other state and Chicago more than any other city. Why do we have so many lead service lines compared to other states and cities?
The main reason is that essentially Chicago and other cities in the Illinois area required the use of lead service lines until 1986, long after it was recognized that lead was toxic and other cities stopped using it. A decade after other cities stopped using it, Chicago and other cities in Illinois not only used it, but required the use of lead long after everyone else.
Given that the dangers were known at the time, why did the city continue to use them?
I think there were different reasons. First, it was economically feasible; it was cheaper and easier to operate and keep using. Another part of it was that the leading industry historically had a strong lobby.
If you are a homeowner, how do you find out if you have a lead service line?
What is supposed to happen is that a bill was passed a few years ago that prompted cities to do a lead inventory. They should identify where all lead service lines are, publish this inventory, and return it to the state. But that inventory wasn’t mandated, so we only have a handful of cities across the state that actually do – or in a meaningful way. Typically, other cities across the country have maps available so you can see if you have a lead service line or create a website where I can just type in my address and see if I have a lead -Service pipe got. Another way to at least determine if there is lead in the water is to get tested. In Chicago, you can call 311 and get a lead test. And that would at least show that there is lead somewhere … but it could also be the pipes in your house.
If you get your water tested and it is found that there is lead in it, can you take that result into town and ask them to change your utility line?
Well, at the moment there is no mandate. There is no mandate for water systems or municipalities to do anything. Usually the city might provide you with a filter and some cartridges, but it really is. Chicago is introducing this new program, but even that is only a limited pilot program. Even if my water is tested for lead … and it has to be above a certain level to even trigger what we call the action level. And sometimes it is not beyond that and there is no need to replace it.
Filters just seem like a band-aid solution.
Correctly. It does not go to the root of the problem of getting the lead pipes out of the ground. This is the only way to completely remove lead from drinking water.
If a homeowner wanted to replace their lead service line, what is the typical cost and who will pay that cost?
Right now in Chicago – and this is outside of the program they are launching – the city waives some permit and other fees for a homeowner saying they want to replace their lead service line. They work with you to find a contractor. The city will cover what it thinks is the public side of the property. And that was one of the problems with the city. The estimated cost of replacing the entire lead service line was approximately $ 27,000 per line. At NRDC we have done this work across the country. On average, we’ve seen full lead service line replacement between $ 3,500 and $ 5,000.
Why are there more lead service lines in the Black and Latino communities? Why is there this inequality?
In Chicago and the state of Illinois, black, brown, and Asian residents are twice as likely to live in communities with senior service lines. Ninety-five percent of the state’s top service lines are in black and brown communities regardless of income. When you think of Chicago, we’re a very separate city. If we knew that lead was dangerous in the 1970s but we allowed it until 1986, you’d think these lead service lines were evenly distributed among the communities, but they are not. To me, the only thing that makes sense is that you’ve probably had richer, more affluent white communities who have been able to amass political power to say that we know lead is dangerous, so you’re out of lead here put. Black, brown, and low-income communities did not have this political power or political representation to prevent lead from being used in their communities.
How is the situation now? The city has a small project they are launching that would save low-income homeowners the expense. How seriously do you think the Lightfoot administration takes this and what more would you like from them?
I think they should definitely get some credit for actually doing it voluntarily. Many other places around the country have waited for a crisis to hit, if you look at Flint, Pittsburgh, etc. It takes public health lawsuits and crises for them to take action. For a city like Chicago, the city with the most leading service lines, that is finally stepping up and saying, OK, we’re going to do this voluntarily and create a program that will allow us to at least reach out to low-income residents who otherwise wouldn’t could. t pay for it and do it for free. That’s commendable, but the problem is that it’s a small program. You can’t take it too seriously if you tell me you’re going to start replacing 750 lines a year and you have 400,000. We’re joking about it, but the computation is it would take 500 years to replace every single lead service line in town. We’ve seen other big cities override this in three, four, five, ten years. It’s great that they are doing it, but in order for it to be taken seriously, that number needs to be increased astronomically to do it in a meaningful way.
What would the Springfield bill that supports the NRDC do? How much support does the bill have?
The Springfield bill does a couple of things. It stipulates the replacement of all leading service lines in the state. All utilities must begin replacing. As part of this mandate, you would also be tasked with taking stock and drawing up a plan for the lead service line exchange. It also prohibits partial lead service line replacement, which is a rather dangerous practice if you are replacing one side of the service line rather than the other. When you do this type of construction, all of the lead on the side that you are not separating and replacing will shake up, and it will astronomically increase the amount of lead in your water. The current bill would also create an advisory stakeholder committee to help oversee the implementation and enforcement of this work, as well as a fee structure that would allow the creation of a pot of money that all water systems could access for lead replacement Service management.
Do you have enough support from the Springfield legislature to get the bill through and get the governor to sign it?
I think we’ll get there. There is generally great interest in drinking water and drinking water infrastructure – especially at the federal level. We have Senator Duckworth who is driving this huge water infrastructure bill that is getting a lot of attention. Last week during the hearings she raised the problem of lead in drinking water in Illinois and Chicago as close to crisis levels. So I think with the idea that there will be an influx of federal resources to help fight lead service lines, there is support there. We just need to figure out how to negotiate with utilities and make sure the requirements are met too.
Utilities typically don’t spend money they don’t have to. Given what is known about the dangers of lead, are you on board with the idea that you need to come up with a plan to replace these pipes?
They don’t spend money when they don’t have to, but we know utilities spend billions of dollars every day on all kinds of other infrastructure projects that we never question. None of these infrastructure projects are more critical than lead as they are direct health implications. I think they have recognized that lead is a problem that needs to be addressed. I think they want to do it. You’re just trying to figure out how best to do it.
Details on the city’s Lead Service Line Replacement program can be found here.
Orr and Chicago Chief Sustainability Officer Angela Tovar discusses the dangerous legacy of lead service lines in Chicago and Illinois in Chicago Tonight.
Note: this story will be updated with video.