Curious City has answered several of your questions about the lead in Chicago’s water. The following is an update to our ongoing lead coverage in the city and region.
Research has long shown that pollution often disproportionately affects low income — especially Black and brown — communities.
But does that hold true for lead pollution in water? Are people of color in Illinois more likely to live in areas with lead water pipes?
That’s what the Metropolitan Planning Council set out to examine with a recent study of lead water lines in Illinois and found the answer is probably “yes.”
The study looked at the racial demographics of the 50 Illinois municipalities with the greatest number of lead water lines.
“What we found is that if you are Black or Latinx, there is a much higher chance that you live in a community with lead pipes than if you are white,” said Josh Ellis, vice president of the MPC and a co-author on the study. “Sixty-five percent of the Black and Latinx population of Illinois lives in communities that have 95 percent of all the lead pipes.”
Ellis and co-author Justin Williams note that there were challenges in working with the state’s limited data, which still classifies 28 percent of pipes as made of “unknown material” and doesn’t specify the race of residents in homes with lead pipes. So they stress that the findings are based on cross referenced data rather than specific addresses.
Still, the data do show a disproportionate number of Black and Latinx residents live in municipalities with 95 percent of the state’s lead lines. These lines are dangerous because studies show they leach lead into the drinking water of homes that use them. Public health authorities stress that no ingested level of lead is safe as it can cause heart problems in adults and impair cognitive development in children.
But people of color are not just more likely to live in communities with lead lines, they’re also less likely to be able to pay for their removal. An Environmental Defense Fund study of lead line removal in Washington D.C. from 2009 to 2018, showed that high-income, white neighborhoods had much higher rates of lead line removal than low-income Black neighborhoods. The presumption was that homeowners in low-income neighborhoods had a harder time coming up with the thousands of dollars needed to pay for the procedure.
What it means for plans to remove lead pipes in Chicago
While some other communities in Illinois are using public funds to pay for the removal of lead pipes or heavily subsidizing the process, Chicago’s recently released plan puts most of the burden on individual homeowners.
The city has secured federal grants to remove about 750 lead lines in low-income areas over the next year for free, but that’s only a tiny sliver of the city’s nearly 400,000-line inventory. The city amassed this inventory because the municipal code required all homes — including two- and even four-flats — to install lead service lines until they were federally banned in 1986. Under the current plan, most residents would have to pay to remove those mandatory lines at a cost of about $28,000 per household, according to the Chicago Department of Water Management.
When WBEZ asked how CDWM officials came up with the $28,000 figure — which is nearly five times more than the $6,000 per home estimate by Elevate Energy — department spokeswoman Megan Vidis cited the additional costs associated with “working around dense underground infrastructure.” She said there were also significant costs “associated with repair and restoration of the public way,” but that the department would have a better idea of exact costs as the plan got started.
Still, whether it’s $6,000 or $28,000, the MPC researchers say that forcing homeowners to pay for the removal of a toxin that the city once required residents to install is not fair and would leave low-income Black and Latinx communities in the greatest danger.
Crafting a state bill for spring 2021
To try to address some of the problems they identified in their study, Ellis and Williams are working with the Illinois Environmental Council and lawmakers including Illinois State Senator (7th) Heather Steans to craft statewide legislation that would ban dangerous partial lead line replacements, set tiered removal deadlines for all Illinois municipalities and suggest that removal costs be community funded.
“We are trying to distribute the burden of replacing these across communities and across people but [details] are still in negotiation,” Ellis said.
Although Chicago has the largest known inventory of lead lines in the state, Ellis stresses that this is not just a Chicago problem.
“This is playing out in [municipalities] that are tiny, medium and large,” he said. “But it is consistent throughout the state. So as we think about comprehensive state solutions and local solutions, I think that the reality of disproportionate exposure needs to be part of how we solve this.”
Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org