After decades of forcing Chicagoans to install lead water pipes in their homes, the city is finally launching a program to remove them.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced on Thursday the Chicago opening plan to address its huge inventory of toxic lead lines – an issue exacerbated by some mayors, ignored by others, and now being cautiously addressed by the latest.
“This is an important first step in a long overdue process,” Lightfoot said at a press conference with representatives from the city’s water and health authorities.
With 400,000 lines lurking beneath Chicago’s homes, the city faces the country’s worst documented pipeline problem. About 80 percent of all homes in Chicago are still connected to water through these pipes, which can put lead in drinking water. In voluntary testing in Chicago, lead was found in more than two-thirds of all homes tested. And about a third of all homes tested had more lead in their water than is allowed in bottled water.
National health authorities emphasize that exposure to lead is not safe as it can lead to heart attacks, high blood pressure and kidney problems in adults, and impulsiveness and learning difficulties in children.
The mayor says her team is still gathering information about the cost of the leadership exchange program, but she estimated it could cost about $ 8.5 billion. The first step in the plan involves replacing lead lines for low-income residents whose tests have shown high levels of lead in their water.
City documents, however, show officials only expect to replace 400 to 800 of these lines in the first year. This led to a rare criticism from the 36th Ald district. Gilbert Villegas, chairman of the mayor’s city council and a staunch ally of Lightfoot.
“This is a start, but at 750 out of 400,000 lines [to] If the project is replaced next year, it should be completed by 2553, ”Villegas tweeted Thursday morning.
Lightfoot pushed back against Villegas’ timeline, but she didn’t come up with a more specific one, other than saying it would be “a multi-year process”. A presentation by the water department characterizes the time schedule for the removal as “several decades”.
How will the town hall pay for it?
As for funding, the city is anticipating a Community Development Block Grant to replace low-income residents in the coming year, and state and federal grants for much of the rest.
“The reality is that this is a $ 8.5 billion program and the money doesn’t currently exist, but we are aggressively investigating further support we can get from the state and federal government,” said Lightfoot.
The plan also includes eliminating costly wire replacement fees for homeowners who want to pay for their own moving services. The mayor says she will propose the fee waiver this year and hopes to make it available to homeowners next year. A third step is to control the removal of the pipeline on a block where the city is already replacing the aqueduct.
Last month, Lightfoot indirectly beat up Mayor Rahm Emanuel for failing to use this double-replacement strategy because his administration demolished hundreds of kilometers of roads for water works without replacing a single condominium. Detroit officials swapped their plumbing lines during the water line replacement, saving $ 1,500 to $ 2,000 per line, according to local water officials.
In fact, dozens of other cities – and even suburbs of Chicago – have already launched and completed line exchange programs. These include Denver, Cincinnati, Gary, Ind., Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Philadelphia, and more.
How did the lead pipe problem in Chicago get so bad?
Chicago ended up with the nation’s largest counted inventory of lead service lines, largely due to its political clout and plumber-friendly building codes. The city code forced residents to install power lines for decades and wasn’t changed until 1986 when power lines were banned at the federal level.
As recently as April 1986, the powerful Chicago Plumbers Union, which Lightfoot advocated, campaigned for the city to refuse to change the code to allow pipe materials other than lead. The union had a financial interest in keeping the lead pipes close as only a licensed union plumber could install lead pipes.
The Lightfoot office did not immediately respond to questions about what their administration would do to prevent the union from taking advantage of lucrative contracts to fix an issue it contributed to.
The water expert calls the city’s plan a big step
Lightfoot may be criticized by some for the modest scope of the plan. Miguel del Toral, a retired water expert for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who has been highlighting the subject for years, loved the news.
“It felt great to hear that,” he told WBEZ on Thursday. “God bless the mayor for having the courage to do so.”
Del Toral believes the mayor’s plan has value beyond finally digging the toxic pipes out of the ground.
“It’s more important than just getting started [removal]It is finally recognized that it is a problem, ”he said. “Now maybe more people are going to take it seriously and use filters and take precautionary measures.”
These precautions include using water filters that remove lead and, as the city recommends on their website, flushing the faucets for five minutes before use if the water has not been running for several hours.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Contact her at [email protected]