After decades of inaction by Chicago mayors to remove lead pipes that deliver water to Chicagoans, Cook County Board president and mayoral hopeful Toni Preckwinkle is vowing to change course. On Thursday, the candidate released an environmental platform that calls for replacing the lead lines that bring water to Chicago homes, and in the process, can contaminate that water with lead.
“It is intolerable that there are still 385,000 lead water service lines to homes,” the Preckwinkle platform states. “Lead service lines were actually required by Chicago, up until the federal government outlawed them in 1986 due to their negative health impacts.“
These lead service lines — that bring water to homes and fountains all over the city — have been a longstanding problem in Chicago. Research over the last decade shows that city officials test the water of only 50 Chicago homes every three years. But the majority of homes tested voluntarily in recent years show more lead in their water than would be allowed in bottled water. Health officials stress that no level of lead consumption is safe, especially for children whose brains are still developing.
Preckwinkle’s plan aims to increase testing, create an inventory of where the lines are located and prioritize replacement in areas where children live and go to school.
Environmental groups have been pushing for full lead service line replacement for years, which more than 50 U.S. cities have already started. But Mayor Rahm Emanuel, like his predecessors, has made no significant moves to start the process in Chicago. In fact, Emanuel has conducted a multiyear water main replacement program that experts, including the Environmental Protection Agency, say may make the lead problem worse by releasing even more lead particles into the the water.
Preckwinkle states in her plan that she would create partnerships and apply for state and federal funds to help homeowners pay for the removal and replacement of their lead service lines and give priority to African-American and Latinx firms to do the work.
Thursday the Sierra Club Chicago group officially endorsed Preckwinkle with a statement that praised her environmental work as Cook County Board president and her promised steps to address water and clean energy in Chicago.
Jennifer Walling of the Illinois Environmental Council called the plan “thorough” and said she appreciated “the emphasis on lead service line replacement and protection of low-income environmental justice communities.”
The news of the endorsement and ambitious environmental platform comes in a week Preckwinkle has come under increasing scrutiny for her ties to embattled Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward).
Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.