Three toxic water pipes gone. Another 399,997 to go.
After denying for years that Chicago has a widespread problem with brain-damaging lead in tap water, city officials are embarking on a long-delayed campaign to eliminate hidden hazards at virtually every home and two-flat built before the mid-1980s.
The Department of Water Management is moving at a snail’s pace so far, though.
Workers this week dug up the front yard at just the third house approved for a safer copper water line, which replaced one of the thousands of lead pipes connected to the city’s network of underground street mains.
At the current rate there is no chance the department meets Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan for 650 pipe replacements during 2021. There is no incentive to work faster. A new state law gives Chicago a half century to finish the job — a timeline demanded by the mayor.
“Cities tend to be reluctant and even afraid to start this much-needed work,” said Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund and former assistant commissioner of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. “Most are finding that once they get going it is a lot easier than they had feared.”
Lightfoot promised nearly a year ago to start ripping out toxic pipes known as service lines, a legacy ignored during the past century by most of her predecessors at City Hall.
The amount of earth-moving and number of workers observed by the Tribune this week at a South Side bungalow suggests Chicago still has a lot to learn from other cities that have made lead pipe replacements more efficient and less costly.
A half-dozen water management employees looked on as a backhoe operator dug a deep and wide trench between the sidewalk and home, scooping the excavated dirt into a dump truck backed into what was left of the lawn. Another worker in a front loader nudged a lane-sized square of iron to cover a gaping hole in the street.
The crew eventually uncoiled copper pipe next to the lead service line between the water main and basement. Several of the workers said they also replaced the home’s sewer line because it was too close to the water line, a time-consuming addition required under state health regulations.
Chicago officials estimate it will cost $27,000 to replace each of the 650 lead service lines. Meanwhile, Denver replaced 5,200 lead service lines at an average cost of $10,000 per line last year, and Detroit replaced 1,100 pipes costing an average of $5,000 per line in 2018.
Water department spokeswoman Megan Vidis declined to make Commissioner Andrea Cheng available for comment. In an email response to questions, Vidis described the work as an “effort to understand what challenges the city will face as we scale up” the replacement program. Contractors will soon be hired to take over the project, she said.
“It’s worth the job to get rid of the lead,” said Ida Cook, who bought the house on South Hermitage Street in 1985. “I just hope the neighbors don’t mind all the commotion.”
More toxic pipes
Lead is unsafe to consume at any level. Ingesting even tiny concentrations can permanently damage the developing brains of children and contribute to heart disease, kidney failure and other health problems later in life. In 2018, researchers estimated more than 400,000 deaths a year in the U.S. are linked to lead exposure.
Cook is among thousands of Chicago residents who discovered their water is contaminated after requesting free testing kits from the city. Tribune analyses of the results show high levels of the metal have been detected in every neighborhood.
It also is a statewide problem. More than 8 of every 10 Illinoisans live in a community where the toxic metal was detected in drinking water from at least one home during the past six years, the Tribune reported in March. Dozens of homes had hundreds and even thousands of parts per billion of lead in tap water — just as extreme as what researchers found during the same period in Flint, Michigan, where mismanagement of the public water system drew a world spotlight to the hazards.
Chicago has more toxic pipes than any other U.S. city. Illinois has more than any other state, largely because local plumbing codes required the use of lead to convey water into homes until Congress banned the practice in 1986.
Despite the well-documented dangers, federal regulations allow Chicago and most other cities to avoid legal requirements to replace lead service lines. Instead, Chicago adds corrosion-fighting chemicals to the water supply that, in theory, form a protective coating inside the pipes to prevent leaching.
But the water department acknowledges that lead-contaminated water can still flow out of faucets, especially if people haven’t taken a shower, done laundry or washed dishes for several hours. Studies in Chicago and other cities also have found alarming concentrations of the toxic metal can flow out of taps for weeks or even months after service lines have been jostled by street work or plumbing repairs.
Short of replacing service lines, physicians and scientists say, the only way to keep the lead out is by using filters certified to remove it.
President Joe Biden wants to eliminate the hazards nationwide. A Senate-approved infrastructure bill would direct $15 billion to help Chicago and other cities replace lead service lines, short of the $45 billion proposed by Biden but still a sizable infusion of federal aid.
“It’s just plain wrong that in the United States of America today, millions of children still receive their water through lead service pipes,” Biden said in a March Twitter post. “It’s long past time we fix that.”
Lots of hurdles
The experience Carmelita Banks went through during the past year highlights several of the bureaucratic and logistical hurdles facing Chicagoans who want their lead service line replaced.
Banks, a retired tutor at the City Colleges of Chicago and a former downstate newspaper columnist, is among about 700 residents who have applied for a free pipe replacement financed by $19 million in federal grants and low-interest loans obtained by the Lightfoot administration.
By her count, Banks had to fill out 20 documents proving she qualified for the program. Some of the fields in the online application weren’t large enough to enter the necessary information. Several phone calls to the water department smoothed out the kinks, but then it took months before she learned her request had been approved.
“I had almost forgotten about it until a lady called and said folks from five different city departments would be showing up at my house to walk me through what they planned to do,” Banks said this week as she watered thin patches of grass planted after the water department dug up her lawn during two days in July.
The crew chopped down a majestic maple tree in the right of way because its roots had become entangled with the sewer and lead service line, she said. Banks had nice things to say about the city workers but said it took several more phone calls to get a contractor out to scatter grass seed in fresh dirt that covered her new copper service line.
“You have to be persistent,” she said. “At least now I don’t have to worry. I’m a grandmother expecting my fifth grandchild. I don’t want them drinking polluted water.”
Other cities are waiving proof-of-income requirements and focusing their pipe replacement programs on low-income neighborhoods where children face disproportionate risks from ingesting the dust of deteriorating lead-based paint. Some cities have cut costs by utilizing methods that don’t require the excavation of entire yards and replacing lead service lines at the same time crews dig up streets to install new water mains.
The new Illinois law doesn’t require Chicago to begin joint service line/water main projects until 2023, after the city expects to have completed a 10-year program to replace 880 miles of cast iron water mains.
On each of those streets, new mains will have been hooked up to existing lead service lines.
“Previous mayors screwed the city,” said Miguel Del Toral, a retired U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official who played a key role in identifying lead hazards in Flint and East Chicago. “Now we have to pay to dig up all of these streets again to replace the lead lines. Absolutely stupid and fiscally irresponsible.”
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