Lightfoot’s Plan To Replace Chicago’s Lead Water Pipes Has Switched Out 280 Of An Estimated 390,000 Service Lines

The water coming out of the faucets in her more than a-century-old house was never something Angela McGhee trusted.

The 50-year-old Chatham homeowner uses store-bought bottles to drink water because she was concerned that the tap water might be contaminated with high levels of lead, which can cause brain damage.

McGhee made the decision to research a Chicago program last year that offered low-income families complete reimbursement for the replacement of lead service lines. Several of her friends and neighbors are skeptical of the program, but she still went through, according to McGhee. Her lead line had been changed to a copper pipe by August.

She said, “If we don’t have our health, we don’t have anything else.”

Only 280 Chicago homes, including McGhee and her husband, have had their lead service lines, which connect a home to the water main, replaced over the past two years thanks to city-sponsored initiatives.

The largest number of lead water lines in any American city is 280 out of an estimated 390,000 lead service lines.

Even though the detrimental health consequences of lead were well understood by 1986, lead service lines were nonetheless placed there.

The city will now be compelled by state law to replace lead service pipes whenever a water line breaks or leaks starting in January. As a result, the city will be required to replace at least 4,000 lead lines per year and possibly as many as 5,000.

Residents of the city who have a water supply line break or leak can dial 311.

With the new law, lead line replacement in Chicago will finally start to advance more.

City officials have announced that they will soon close on a low-interest loan from the US Environmental Protection Agency for $336 million over five years, which will be used to fund a significant portion of the program.

A serious public health concern is lead exposure. Drinking contaminated water puts individuals, particularly children, at serious risk since the metal can harm the brain and nervous system. There are no safe amounts of lead, according to pediatricians and health advocates.

Chicago complies with federal law even though lead has been found in the water in homes all around the city. For public utility drinking water, the EPA has set a limit threshold of 15 parts per billion.

A relatively modest pilot program that would start with 600 lead service line replacements paid for by the city for residents who qualified based on income and other requirements was announced by Mayor Lori Lightfoot two years ago.

Even though McGhee participated in the equity program, the number of lead lines replaced in Chicago fell far short of the city’s target. There were only 225 participants in the equity program.

Other replacements were carried out under different programs, one of which was fully funded by homeowners.

Lightfoot has received praise for being the first mayor of Chicago to pledge a solution to a persistent issue. But she has also come under fire for falling short of the pilot program’s objectives and moving slowly with lead pipe replacements.

Andrea Cheng, a civil engineer and commissioner of the Chicago Department of Water Management, is tasked with solving the lead pipe issue. She has the chemical symbol for water tattooed on her right wrist.

About 2,000 people work for the water department, and more than 300 more will be hired to help with the replacement of lead pipes. Street crews, outreach personnel, and other positions are included. Although some work will be done by contractors, city crews will perform the majority of the replacements.

When I hear people say we’re moving slowly, that irritates me, Cheng remarked. The truth is that they are unaware of the amount of effort we expended to even get this position.

The lengthy application procedure was a problem for the city, according to Cheng, but the pilot program showed her department how to make it more efficient. She stated that with $15 million in yearly financing from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, she hoped to achieve Lightfoot’s original target of replacing 600 lead lines by the end of the next year.

On, people can apply to have their lead pipes replaced.

City Hall received a $4 million forgivable loan in July as part of a different initiative from state environmental officials, who distribute federal tax money to localities. The funds will be utilized to replace the lead lines in daycare facilities. Next year, Cheng plans to replace 120 of these.

Officials also intend to replace lead pipes when full water main or sewer main replacements are completed. How many homeowners will gain from that is unknown. Little Village’s pilot program has been postponed for months.

Chicago has 50 years under state law to replace its lead lines. However, that deadline is not actually enforced until 2027.

The cost of replacing them altogether, which will run into the billions of dollars, is not covered by the Chicago replacement plan as it stands.

It appears that increasing water rates is currently out of the question. Although Cheng hopes there will be more federal funding, she said the city can continue to borrow money.

The state received $107 million under the federal, bicameral infrastructure law for all of Illinois. Chicago will require more.

Erik Olson, senior strategic director of public health for the private Natural Resources Defense Council, is one of several who criticizes Chicago’s sluggish replacement of lead lines as well as the lead levels the EPA permits in water.

Olson added, “We applaud the city’s discussion of treating this matter more seriously. The issue is that this city has the worst lead service line issue in the nation.

According to Olson, other cities—including Newark, New Jersey—have fared better. In less than three years, Newark replaced 23,000 people. Olson’s organization launched that endeavor with a lawsuit.

Tens of thousands of Chicagoans have received protective filters, according to Cheng, who also claimed that the city has procedures in place to deal with high lead levels as soon as they are discovered.

She stated that additional initiatives, such as the streamlining of the home testing procedure, are also in progress.

Each pipe replacement in Newark costs between $5,000 and $10,000.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, questioned Cheng about why Chicago’s cost estimates are at least three times higher than those in any other city during a hearing in Chicago last April.

The city’s subsurface infrastructure is complicated, according to Cheng, and more significantly, trenchless technology wasn’t permitted by the state until a waiver was granted earlier this year.

In an interview, Duckworth stated that “this can be done, and it can be done quickly.” But we’re going to need to grow up and make some important choices about how we’re going to approach this.

It requires willpower, according to Duckworth. I’m going to keep pressing everyone and saying, “We have to do this.” I’ll also keep pushing and poking them.


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