Because even tiny amounts of lead can harm the brain, every day that lead finds its way into the drinking water of households is a day that could damage children who live in Chicago homes with lead service lines.
So imagine if those days turned into years. In fact, imagine if some homes in the city weren’t slated to get their lead-lined water supply lines replaced for 50 years. The cumulative harm could be serious.
That’s why there’s a major flaw in new Illinois legislation that would require the removal of lead service lines across the state.
The mandate is sensible. We’ve argued for years that Chicago, which has one of the worst lead service line problems in the country, should not waste time on a lead removal plan. And it also cannot saddle taxpayers with an impossible price tag. But the proposal, at the request of the city, gives Chicago 50 years to complete its lead service line removal program. That’s a too-generous timeline.
The bill’s Senate sponsor, Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, said the city requested the long timeline.
Chicago has itself to blame for being stuck with this vitally important — and extremely expensive — task. Before 1986, Chicago actually required the use of lead service lines as the connection between water mains and a household’s plumbing. In 1986, the city banned the practice, but only because action by Congress forced it to that year.
Today, it’s estimated that in Chicago there are roughly 400,000 homes and small apartment buildings with lead service lines. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has embraced the overall goal of getting lead out of Chicago’s water supply. So far, however, her approach appears far too tentative.
This year, Lightfoot’s administration will pay for 650 lead service line replacements. It makes sense that this initial effort will largely target low-income neighborhoods in which children are doubly vulnerable because of dust from lead-based paint. But the pace is not nearly aggressive enough, and it comes late — halfway into the mayor’s first term. Other cities with lead problems have been moving with the right urgency.
Last year, Denver replaced 5,200 lead service lines at a cost of $10,000 per replacement. Michigan’s capital, Lansing, has wrapped up its 12-year, $44.5 million effort to replace all of its lead pipes, ratcheting down the cost to just $3,000 per service line. Madison, Wisconsin, is also done with its lead service line replacement, spreading the $15.5 million project over an 11-year span. Homeowners paid for the work, but the city reimbursed them for half of the cost.
Chicago officials have estimated the cost of lead pipe replacement at as much as $10 billion. Other cities have been smart in finding ways to bring down the cost of replacement, and it’s on the shoulders of the Lightfoot administration to find ways to craft a plan that is both logistically and financially sound. Clearly, a measure of help will come from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, which includes $45 billion for the replacement of every lead service line in the country.
On a visit to Chicago last week, Biden’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Michael Regan, talked of the need to not delay tackling the problem of lead in drinking water. “We must identify where the lead pipes are located, remove them quickly and ensure that all of our communities, especially communities of color and low-income communities, are protected from lead in drinking water,” Regan said.
Regan was right to stress speed. No one expects the problem to disappear overnight, next year or in five years. But 50 years is far too long, and the legislation that lays out that timeline is wrong to give Chicago that long of a leash. By the same token, Lightfoot and Chicago would be very wrong to take it.