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Curious City

Chicago Park District Shutting Off Almost Half Of Its Outdoor Drinking Fountains Due To Lead

The Chicago Park District may shut down half of its outdoor drinking fountains this season in a move aimed at protecting the public from lead exposure, officials say.

The decision comes after two years of the district grappling with high lead levels in the water of hundreds of its drinking fountains. The announcement arrives about six weeks before an estimated 40,000 Chicago kids, ages 6 to 12, start park district day camp. Fountains are a significant source of campers’ hydration. Exposure to lead through drinking water and other sources can impair children’s ability to learn, and can cause behavioral and other problems.

WBEZ learned of the shut-offs through open records requests and an interview this week with Chicago Park District Director of the Environmental Services Dan Cooper.

Curious City first investigated the issue in 2016, when members of the public asked if the city ever tested the water in park district and lake shore fountains for lead. At the time, it hadn’t.

But after multiple inquiries that summer from WBEZ and other news outlets, the park district tested its roughly 1,200 outdoor fountains. The district found that about a fourth of the fountains delivered water with lead levels that violated the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action limit of 15 parts per billion. When a municipality finds more than 10 percent of tested homes with water above this lead level, the local government is required to remediate.

Last spring, the district tried to remedy the situation by bypassing push-button controls and running fountains continuously for a month starting in April. This goal was to flush pipes and drinking water of lead sediment, as well as condition the pipes. Most district fountains only release water when a button’s pushed.

Flushing worked for most fountains; about 70 percent delivered water below the federal action level when returned to push-button use. More than 100, however, did not. Their lead levels spiked above federal action levels when returned to normal use, prompting the district to run them continuously all season. This kept lead levels low, but sent millions of gallons of clean, filtered drinking water into sewers.

Officials are taking a different approach this year. Outdoor fountains will be divided into two categories: those that never registered detectable lead levels and those that did.

The 500 or so that have never registered lead issues will operate normally, but the 750 that have registered detectable levels (some up to 80 times the federal action limit) will either be turned off or left on continuous flow.

“We’ll either run them full time or not at all,” says Park’s Environmental Services Director Cooper.

Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been active on the issue of clean drinking water, applauds the move. He says it’s especially important since kids are both the primary users of park facilities and so vulnerable to the effects of lead exposure.

“Closing down those water fountains as an interim step is a good one,” he says. “The larger points of water efficiency and access are really important, and need to be addressed, but in the short term, let’s make sure we are not giving kids brain poison.”

The district is still deciding which lead-contaminated fountains to leave on continuous flow based on traffic volume and the need for water in the area. Cooper estimates that number won’t go higher than 200.

This leaves at least 550 other problematic fountains in lower-traffic areas that Cooper says will “remain off and be evaluated for permanent removal.”

This year, the park district has already permanently removed more than 100 fountains from district property because of lead issues, Cooper says.

The ultimate goal, he says, is to remove problematic fountains from areas where they are rarely used and repair fountains in areas where they are most used. He says six have already been fixed this year, and 20 more are scheduled to be repaired.

The rest of the repairs will happen in stages over the next “few years,” Cooper says, adding that most of the replacement work will involve replacing lead water service lines. Chicago regularly installed such lines until 1986, when the federal government banned the practice.

Curious City questioner Julie Dworkin asked about the continuously running fountains last year. She’s not thrilled with officials’ decision to put so many public fountains out of commission.

“These all seem like bad solutions,” she says. “Isn’t there a solution that keeps the water safe but doesn’t reduce access to water?”

Dworkin works for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and crusades for access to public bathrooms. “I’m concerned about public water fountains for the same reason,” she says.

Dworkin says she has already noticed some of the the hundreds of fountains that have been removed or disabled. She adds: “I get it: The city has limited resources. But they have to figure out a way to get the job done right, so this definitely concerns me.”

If you use park district fountains, here’s what you can keep in mind:

  • If you see a fountain still operating with a push-button, it means the park district detected no lead in its water.
  • If you see a fountain running constantly, the fountain is likely located in a high-use area. Also, tests suggest lead levels can be kept under federal limits if the water’s left running.
  • If you see a fountain that’s been shut off, lead has been detected in its water but it is located in a relatively low-use location. Officials say this will be the likely status of more than 500 fountains this season.
  • The park district tracks each fountain's status. The list as of May 17, 2018, is below. Those listed as "Normal Operation" have working push-buttons. Not sure which park is which? Here's the district's list and map of parks and playlots

Monica Eng is a WBEZ  reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org.

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