By AAMER MADHANI, Associated Press
CHICAGO (AP) – The humble bungalows and two-family houses of Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood are never short of necessary repairs that stare residents in the face. And then there is the less obvious but more threatening problem lurking in their pipes.
“There are so many problems that seem more immediate, be it the roof, the windows, the siding or the insulation,” said 51-year-old Enrique Nieto, who has lived in the mostly Latin American neighborhood all his life. “The main problem isn’t the one that’s right in front of you.”
With decade-long government cuts, the lead pipes that meander through Chicago and communities of all sizes from rural Maine to the California suburbs are now in the national spotlight as President Joe Biden pushes for $ 45 billion to be spent to clean every lead in the water Replace land as part of its large infrastructure package.
The Moon Shot Plan could have a huge impact on this and other cities where a swarm of black, Latin American, and low-income residents effectively drank from a lead straw decades after scientists discovered that lead consumption was unsafe at any level.
The White House believes its lead pipe proposal is a generation change opportunity to reduce brain-damaging lead exposure in 400,000 schools and daycare centers and in 6 to 10 million households. It’s also an effort that the government says can help create many well-paying union jobs across the country.
There are few cities where the problem is more important than Chicago. In the third largest city in the country there are still around 380,000 lead pipes that bring water to houses, schools and businesses. The city demanded its use pending a federal ban in 1986, long after most other American cities phased out its use in the face of an avalanche of lead toxicity studies.
Biden’s plan “would be enormous if it gets through,” said Troy Hernandez, an environmental activist in the predominantly Latin American district of Latino Pilsen. Hernandez recently spent $ 15,000 to replace the plumbing lines that bring water into his home. “I wonder if $ 45 billion will be enough, but it’s a really important step.”
Since announcing his infrastructure plan, Biden has tried to shape his ambitious lead pipe efforts to advance the cause of racial justice. The problem has long had a disproportionate impact on color communities, according to environmental officials and research.
Biden claims there are “hundreds of flints all over America” - an indication of the public health crisis that erupted in the predominantly black city of Michigan after the government switched to a new water supply in 2014 but improperly chemicalized the water treated to prevent lead pipes from disintegrating.
The problem at the national level would not have been neglected for so long if it had gotten closer to politicians, the President suggested.
“What do you think would happen if they found out that all of the lead pipes are up in the Capitol?” Biden recently said while defending his plan against GOP complaints that it was fraught with wasteful spending.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced in September that the city is launching two programs to address the problem. But with limited dollars, the city is expected to dig about 650 lead aqueducts this year – pipes under houses that are plugged into the aqueduct.
“This is a problem that has been around for decades and it will likely take many, many, many years to be addressed and a lot of money will be available,” said City Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.
According to the Federal Office for Environmental Protection, it is unsafe for children to consume lead at any level. Even low levels of lead in the blood can permanently damage the developing brains of children, leading to slow growth, hearing problems, and anemia. According to the authorities, the most common sources of lead in drinking water are lead pipes, taps and fittings.
Biden’s lead pipe plan is in line with a mandate he signed shortly after taking office to provide 40% of new clean energy and environmental spending to disadvantaged communities.
The Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit group that promotes equitable and sustainable growth in the Chicago area, reported last year that 65% of Illinois Black and Latin American residents and 42% of the Asian and Native American population lived in communities where 94% of the population lived on known lead service lines in the state. 30 percent of the state’s white population lived in the same communities.
Even if attention is paid to the long-neglected problem, aid may not be evenly distributed.
In Washington, DC, the city’s efforts to provide logistical assistance to homeowners in replacing lead service lines resulted in higher replacement rates for residents of high-income, white neighborhoods than for homeowners in low-income black neighborhoods, according to a study by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The scope of the problem at the national level is massive, if not fully documented. In some cities, including Chicago, the location of all lead water pipes is not fully known.
The White House, which does not have a precise timeline for completing the project, intends to use some of the money to identify the scope of the problem.
Marc Edwards, the civil and environmental engineer at Virginia Tech University whose research helped uncover Flint’s water crisis, estimates it would likely take 10 to 15 years to replace all of the lead pipes in the country.
Estimated replacement costs vary widely, he said. For example, Chicago has estimated the average cost of replacing a lead water service at $ 27,000. Cities like Denver, Detroit and Newark, New Jersey, all of which have started replacement efforts in recent years, have managed to do so at a fraction of that cost. The White House estimated $ 4,000 to $ 6,000 per pipe replacement in drawing up its proposal.
The White House says it would distribute the money to states and communities through two federal clean water programs already in place.
“If done right, $ 45 billion would be enough,” said Edwards. “And if it doesn’t, it’ll still make a huge bump.”
In Little Village, lead concerns have subsided for years.
Last year, Nieto said, residents became concerned after the implosion of a chimney at a disused power station shrouded much of the neighborhood in dust. Some residents complained that their tap water was cloudy for some time after the implosion, and feared that their old lead supply lines could be clogged, increasing the levels of lead particles in the water. City officials tested the water and assured residents that the water was safe, although some residents remained skeptical, Nieto said.
Most homeowners in the working-class neighborhood do not have the funds to replace senior service lines themselves, Nieto said, adding that Biden’s plan “would go a long way”.
Some of his neighbors are skeptical.
Another long-time resident of the working-class neighborhood, Irma Morales, 59, said what Biden is suggesting sounds good, but she doubts the federal government will actually deliver.
“You say, but what are you doing?” Said Morales.
Brenda Santoyo, a political contributor with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said Biden’s plan – if it comes to doing so – could help demonstrate to Latino communities that they will not be forgotten.
“Replacing these guidelines would give our community members a sense of trust in the government at a time when there weren’t many reasons to trust,” she said.
Associate press writer Sophia Tareen contributed to this report.
Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.