Angela McGhee never trusted the tap water flowing from the faucets of her more than century-old home.
The 50-year-old Chatham resident gets her drinking water from store-bought bottles because she suspected her tap water might contain high levels of brain-damaging lead.
Last year, McGhee decided to look into a city of Chicago program that fully paid for replacement of lead service lines for low-income residents. A number of her friends and neighbors are suspicious of the program, McGhee said, but she went ahead. By August, her lead line was replaced with a copper pipe.
“If we don’t have our health, we have nothing else,” she said.
McGhee, who lives with her husband, is one of only 280 Chicago homeowners who have had a lead service line — the connecting pipe between a home and water main — replaced under city-sponsored programs the past two years.
That’s 280 out of an estimated 390,000 lead service lines — the most lead water lines in any city in the United States.
Lead service lines were still being installed in Chicago as recently as 1986 even though the metal’s harmful health effects were well known by then.
Now, beginning in January, the city will be required under state law to replace lead service pipes every time there is a break or leak in a water line. That will force the city to replace what’s estimated will be at least 4,000 lead lines a year, perhaps 5,000.
Any city residents with a break or leak in a water service line should call 311.
The new law means Chicago will finally begin to see more progress on replacing the lead lines.
To pay for a large portion of the program, city officials say they will close soon on a low-interest loan from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for $336 million over five years.
Lead exposure is a critically important public health issue. The metal can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, putting people, particularly children, who drink tainted water at considerable risk. Pediatricians and health advocates say there are no safe levels of lead.
Despite lead having been detected in the water in homes across the city, Chicago complies with federal law. The EPA has set a level of 15 parts per billion as a maximum for drinking water from public utilities.
Two years ago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a relatively small pilot program that would begin with 600 lead service line replacements paid by the city for residents who qualified based on income and other requirements.
While most of the lead lines replaced in Chicago were removed through the equity program that McGhee took part in, the number fell well short of the city’s goal. There were just 225 equity program participants.
Other replacements were done through additional programs, including one paid for entirely by homeowners.
Lightfoot has gotten credit for being the first Chicago mayor to promise a solution to what’s been a long-standing problem. But she also has drawn criticism for missing the goal of the pilot program and for moving slowly on lead pipe replacements.
Chicago Department of Water Management Commissioner Andrea Cheng, a civil engineer who has the chemical symbol for water tattooed on her right wrist, is faced with the task of turning the corner on the lead pipe problem.
The water department has about 2,000 employees and plans to hire more than 300 more for work related to lead pipe replacements. The jobs include street crews, outreach workers and others. Replacements will largely be done by city crews, but some work will be handled by contractors.
“It’s frustrating when I hear people say we’re doing this slowly,” Cheng said. “The reality is they don’t know how hard we had to work to get to the point of doing any at all.”
Cheng said the city struggled to get people to go through a lengthy application process but that the pilot taught her department how to improve the process. She said she hopes to meet Lightfoot’s original goal next year of replacing 600 lead lines with $15 million in yearly funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
People who want to apply to get their lead pipes replaced can do so online at https://www.leadsafechicago.org/lead-service-line-replacement.
As part of another effort, City Hall got a $4 million forgivable loan in July from state environmental officials, who funnel federal tax dollars, to cities. That money will be used to pay for replacement of lead lines at daycare centers. Cheng is aiming for 120 such replacements next year.
In addition to those programs, officials hope to remove lead lines when full water main or sewer main replacements are done. It’s unclear how many homeowners will benefit from that. A pilot program in Little Village has been delayed for months.
Under state law, Chicago has 50 years to replace its lead lines. But the clock on that deadline doesn’t start ticking until 2027.
The current plan for replacements in Chicago don’t have enough money to pay for all of them, a tab that will be in the billions of dollars.
Raising water bills appears to be out of the question for now. Cheng said the city can continue to borrow money, though she’s hoping there will be more federal money.
Under the federal bipartisan infrastructure law, the state got $107 million for all of Illinois. Chicago will need more.
Erik Olson, senior strategic director of public health for the private Natural Resources Defense Council, is among the critics of the thresholds the EPA allows for lead levels in water and also of Chicago’s slow pace of replacing lead lines.
“We welcome the fact that the city is talking about taking this issue more seriously,” Olson said. “The problem is this city has the largest lead service line problem in the country.”
Other cities, including Newark, New Jersey, have done better, Olson said. Newark replaced 23,000 in under three years. A lawsuit filed by Olson’s organization jump-started that effort.
Cheng said that when dangerous lead levels are found, the city has a process to address the problem right away and that protective filters have been provided to tens of thousands of Chicagoans.
He said other initiatives also are underway, including a simplification of the home testing process.
Willie Brickhouse, 65, who owns a home on the South Side with a just-replaced lead line, said he was worried about the health effects of lead. Retired for a decade, he applied last year and qualified.
On a recent chilly morning, a crew of about a half-dozen city contract workers just outside Brickhouse’s home broke open a hole in concrete to lower a machine to bore underneath and across the street into his basement to replace a lead service line.
The workers used a trenchless technique, new in Chicago, that involves breaking up smaller portions of a street and sidewalk to bore underground and reach the basement of a home to replace lead pipes. It’s cheaper because it requires less digging and less restoration afterward.
That could be key to lowering the city’s estimated cost of up to $30,000 per lead line replaced — and making more replacements possible.
In Newark, the pipes are replaced at a cost of $5,000 to $10,000 each.
At a hearing in Chicago last April, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, questioned Cheng about why Chicago’s cost estimates are at least three times higher, on average, than those in any other city.
Cheng said there are complexities with the city’s underground infrastructure, and more importantly, the trenchless technology wasn’t allowed by the state until a waiver was granted earlier this year.
“This can be done, and it can be done in an expeditious way,” Duckworth said in an interview. “But we’re going to have to put on our big boy pants and make some key decisions on how we’re going to go about doing this.
“There has to be willpower behind it,” Duckworth said. “I’m going to keep asking those tough questions and pushing and prodding everyone involved and say: We have to do this.”
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.