Seven months ago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a plan to start removing the city’s toxic lead pipes and finally address Chicago’s enormous problem with lead in residential water. But Curious City has learned that city officials have made no progress in actually removing these brain damaging pipes, despite a timeline that said removal would start this spring. Now, officials say they are looking at “later this summer” instead.
With about 400,000 lead service lines hooked up to Chicago homes, the city has the largest inventory of these toxic connections in the nation. Chicago’s building code required all single family homes, two-flats and sometimes even larger buildings to install lead lines until 1986, when the federal government banned them nationwide. Because of that building code a majority of Chicago homes are still connected to the water main with lead service lines, and at risk of having lead tainted tap water. Voluntary tests have shown lead in the water of more than two-thirds of Chicago homes tested. World health authorities stress that no level of ingested lead is safe. It can cause developmental problems in children as well as heart problems in adults.
So when Lightfoot finally announced a plan to start removing some of these lead lines last September, environmental and health advocates were pleased. Last year it was still unclear where much of the funding would come from for Lightfoot’s plan but President Joe Biden recently earmarked $45 billion for lead line replacement in his upcoming infrastructure plan. Additionally, U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin have pushed for funding specific to Illinois, which has more lead lines than any other state.
But the city has still not removed a single lead service line since the mayor announced the plan seven months ago.
“They just don’t seem to be getting the sense of urgency that this needs or the idea that they need to get started,” said Tom Neltner, the chemicals policy director with the Environmental Defense Fund. “You can’t begin to solve this problem if you aren’t actually removing the lead pipes.”
No lead removal more than half a year after announcing plan
Two main tenets of the mayor’s plan include:
A program to waive city fees for affected homeowners who want to pay to replace their lead lines.
An Equity Lead Service Line Replacement program to give free replacements to low income residents with high levels of lead in their water.
Still, no Chicago households have had their lead lines removed under these plans so far.
This may be because the city didn’t even allow residents to start applying until March 11 of this year, despite assurances from officials the applications would be open before the end of 2020. But it could also be that the eligibility requirements to qualify for the free Equity Removal Program are so burdensome that few residents will be able to qualify.
The program requires that homes show “consistent” lead levels in their water of no less than 15 parts per billion. This is a level three times higher than what is allowed in bottled water, and a level that is in no way considered a “health standard.” In fact, the National Institutes of Health say no level of lead exposure is safe. Still, Chicago officials will require homes to show levels of 15 parts per billion or higher in more than one round of testing in order to qualify.
“The conditions for 15 ppb doesn’t make sense,” said Neltner, who has been studying municipal lead line removal programs at the EDF. He said lead levels aren’t always consistent so it’s possible a home could show 15 ppb one week and show a lower level a few months later. One test should be enough to get access to the program.
Water Department officials said they expected to replace about 600 lead lines through the Equity program this year using already procured federal block grant money. But they would not tell Curious City how many applications they have received to date nor how many, if any, have actually been approved. Water Department officials did confirm that they have not removed any lead lines under the Equity program yet and would, in fact, not even start until “later this summer.” The original timeline, however, said “construction” would start this spring.
Neltner is frustrated by the slow pace of the program, noting that spring and summer are the prime seasons for lead line replacement because “it’s a lot easier to do it when the ground’s not frozen.”
He’s also concerned that the equity program bases eligibility on the landlord’s income rather than the residents’ income, especially in rental units. He believes it will likely result in many low-income renters staying in homes with lead-tainted water because eligibility for the program would require, for example, that the building owner’s family of three have an income less than $65,550.
“By conditioning it on income and focusing on single family homes, they are ignoring tenants who are traditionally more exposed to lead because the housing is not in good shape,” he said. “So it seems to me they are missing the people who are most at risk for lead.”
An analysis by the Metropolitan Planning Council confirmed that in Illinois, low-income people of color reside in communities with the highest rates of lead service lines and thus risk the greatest exposures to lead tainted water.
Pilot won’t launch until a full year after plan
The mayor’s plan also promised that the city would launch a separate one-block pilot program to try removing lead lines where the crews are already replacing the water mains. In Detroit, water officials told Curious City they save $1,500 to $2,000 per home by replacing the lead lines at the same time as the water mains. Yet, under Mayor Rahm Emanuel the city refused to take advantage of these savings. Instead city crews replaced hundreds of miles of water mains without doing any proactive line replacements.
Still, water officials tell WBEZ they won’t even begin the pilot program until fall of 2021, a full year after the pilot was announced. The original timeline pegged the program for summer.
Why won’t they begin sooner?
As of press time, officials hadn’t answered Curious City’s questions about this.
Chicago will pay five times the average cost
In Detroit, the average lead line replacement costs is $5,000 while Chicago officials estimate costs of $19,000 to $26,000.
Neltner is puzzled about why Chicago’s estimates are so high.
“That is a mystery to me. Five thousand is what most communities see throughout the country and Cincinnati has been able to drive the cost to around $3,500 because they have learned how to do it quickly and efficiently,” Neltner said.
Megan Vidis at the Water Department said the estimated costs in Chicago are so high because of “the necessity of working around dense underground infrastructure, regulations concerning water and sewer separation, and the costs associated with repair and restoration of the public way. The findings from the first year of the replacement programs will inform efforts to refine and reduce costs moving forward.”
But this can only happen if the city actually begins to remove the lead pipes.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter who has been following the lead in water issue for Curious City for several years.