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Construction crews work to replace lead pipes in the Oakland neighborhood last winter.

Construction crews work to replace lead pipes in the Oakland neighborhood last winter.

Anthony Vazquez

Biden loans $336 million to Chicago to fix lead water pipe problem

President Joe Biden’s administration is loaning Chicago $336 million to help the city pay for the replacement of tens of thousands of lead water pipes.

Unfortunately, it’s not even close to being enough money to fix the problem of stopping brain-damaging lead from flowing through Chicagoans’ primary source of water.

With the loan finalized and announced Friday, the money is expected to help the city replace 30,000 lead service lines – out of more than 400,000 – the largest number in the country.

The city’s water department was anticipating closing on the loan early this year and the dollars were already penciled in to fund part of the pipe replacement program this year and beyond.

The money will be used to reimburse the city for work done this year and over the next several years.

To date, Chicago has replaced almost 3,800 lines from a total of about 409,000 — an updated figure that is larger than past estimates, Department of Water Management officials said Friday.

The city has a goal of replacing 8,000 lines next year, the department said.

The city has been criticized for years as being too slow to address the problem, and even modest targets for replacing lead service lines in low income neighborhoods fell short under former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration.

Gov. JB Pritzker and state lawmakers allowed Chicago more than 50 years to replace all the lead lines in the city, a much longer timeframe then the Biden administration has suggested.

The loan from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will help the city pay for lead line replacements when there is a leak or break or other maintenance required by the city.

EPA officials acknowledge that Chicago is going to have to figure out how to ramp up its program beyond the just-announced loan.

“Chicago has a very big task before it,” the EPA’s Radhika Fox said in an interview. “More resources are going to be needed.”

Fox, an assistant administrator for water at EPA, added that Chicago and other cities will need to step up and try to tap all federal money sources.

“It’s time to get the lead out of communities across the country because there is no safe level of lead,” Fox said.

Mayor Brandon Johnson said that the city will prioritize pipe replacements in low-income communities of color that have high numbers of lead pipes.

“Nine of the top 10 Chicago ZIP codes with the largest percentages of high lead levels were neighborhoods with Black and Latinx residents,” Johnson said in a statement. “So I am committed to prioritizing these communities.”

Johnson also said child day care centers are also being prioritized, through a program started under Lightfoot.

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