Hundreds of millions to remove lead pipes flowing into Illinois as city replaced just a fraction of total this year

Illinois is expected to receive $ 288 million in the coming weeks for lead pipe replacements and other water-related programs under the recently passed federal infrastructure bill.

Chicago has nearly 400,000 drinking water plumbing, the highest number for any US city. Critics say city officials should have addressed the multi-billion dollar problem years ago, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot last year criticized former Mayor Rahm Emanuel for failing to replace the wires, saying it’s time for that Settlement has now come. Your administration has only overseen a small number of lead-line conversions since then, after promises hundreds would be completed.

It is not yet known how much money Chicago will ultimately get in the federal windfall, which is the first annual grant over five years.

With so many houses to replace, it will cost billions of dollars and the initial money won’t be able to completely solve the problem. However, with hundreds of millions set to pour into the state over the next several years, it will be difficult for Lightfoot to maintain a slow approach.

“This is truly a golden opportunity for a problem that has plagued Chicago for decades,” said Erik Olson, a senior strategist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. “Now that there is money, there really is no excuse not to do this.”

The NRDC has campaigned for cities to recognize lead pipes as a crisis and replace them by all means.

Newark, New Jersey replaced nearly 23,000 lead lines – almost all of the tubing that needed replacement – in less than three years, but it was not without a struggle. Attorneys for NRDC represented a group of Newark teachers suing for getting the city to get rid of the lead lines.

“Political will only arises when social and political will meet economic will,” said Yvette Jordan, a Newark High School teacher who was the plaintiff in the case.

While Newark hesitated, city officials there figured out how to replace lines efficiently and cheaply, with the cost well below the city of Chicago estimates of nearly $ 30,000 per house, Olson said.

The Chicago Water Authority is investigating techniques that can cut costs, spokeswoman Megan Vidas said.

Lightfoot announced a plan in 2020 to replace around 600 leads this year, though that program will fall far short of its target. The city has only completed about 20 renovations, and the water board promises to increase its pace, Vidas said. In the meantime, the city will “work for the maximum possible allocation” in order to finance more replacements with federal dollars.

The city “welcomes this historic federal investment in infrastructure modernization,” said Vidas.

A law passed in Springfield that will make cities mandatory this year gives Chicago up to 50 years to replace its lead lines.

An NRDC 2020 ranking of cities with lead service lines showed that Chicago was by far the highest in the state with nearly 390,000 lines. Next up was Aurora at nearly 20,000 lines, Cicero at nearly 15,000, Rockford and Joliet – each at nearly 14,000 – and Evanston at more than 11,000.

Illinois has the most lead service lines of any state at 680,000, according to the NRDC.

“More will happen in the coming years to help Illinois improve access to safe drinking water and replace lead pipes,” said US Senator Tammy Duckworth, who led the fight for funds for the water infrastructure.

In a letter last week from President Joe Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency to Governor JB Pritzker, the governor was informed that additional guidelines on funding will appear shortly.

EPO Administrator Michael Regan in the letter urged that the most deprived communities be reached first and lead pipe removal expedited.

While most of the new federal funding will be used to replace lead pipes for water, some of the funding will be available for communities dealing with so-called perpetual chemical contamination. The state spent the past year evaluating exposure to drinking water systems across Illinois.

Featuring: Rachel Hinton

Brett Chase’s environmental and public health coverage is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.

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