Water Commissioner Says Chicago Will Replace Lead Service Lines

Detroit has been working to remove its lead service lines for more than a year. A worker shows a removed lead service line in Detroit last fall.
Detroit has been working to remove its lead service lines for more than a year. A worker shows a removed lead service line in Detroit last fall. Monica Eng / WBEZ
Detroit has been working to remove its lead service lines for more than a year. A worker shows a removed lead service line in Detroit last fall.
Detroit has been working to remove its lead service lines for more than a year. A worker shows a removed lead service line in Detroit last fall. Monica Eng / WBEZ

Water Commissioner Says Chicago Will Replace Lead Service Lines

Chicago’s water commissioner Randy Conner said the city will soon release a plan to remove and replace all of Chicago’s lead water lines.

The move comes after years of city officials claiming that the estimated 400,000 lead service lines connecting homes to the water main were not a serious problem.

But speaking at a City Council hearing before Chicago aldermen Tuesday, Conner said the city will unveil a removal plan in “coming weeks.”

For years, activists and journalists have been urging the city to start a replacement program, citing data that show high levels of lead in the water of some homes and inadequate testing procedures to track lead in Chicago water.

Federal health authorities say no level of lead exposure in children is safe.

While many Chicago suburbs and cities across the nation — including Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Gary, Cincinnati and Denver — have been working to remove their service lines for years, Chicago has been inactive on the issue.

Conner said one of the reasons is because Chicago has such a high number of the lead lines, which city rules made mandatory for every home until 1986 — when they were outlawed nationally.

“No one else has the number of lead service lines we have,” Conner told aldermen. “We have approximately 400,000 of those lead service lines that we’ll be looking to replace, and so it is a daunting task.”

Indeed, estimated costs for lead service line replacement average around $6,000 per house according to environmental advocates Elevate Energy. Conner said the dense infrastructure of Chicago would make the process even more complicated and estimated it might cost between $8 and $10 billion to complete.

Water department officials did not have many details on the program Tuesday, but said in a statement that replacement would be “voluntary,” meaning homeowners would need to proactively opt in. This has been an important issue in other cities, because the replacement process technically requires allowing workers on private property.

Conner did not say where the city would get the money to complete a program, but said his department is working with state and federal authorities on logistics and funding.

“We are quite sure we will be able to put a program together that will be satisfactory to the citizens of Chicago because, as always, our big concern is water quality and safety of the water program.”

Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Contact her at meng@wbez.org