Federal infrastructure money should help bail out Chicago’s lead water pipe replacement program

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When Chicago receives its share of the $ 17 billion expected from Illinois under the new federal infrastructure bill, we urge Mayor Lori Lightfoot to keep his pledge to replace the harmful lead pipes that currently supply 400,000 homes with water. .

The bill – slated to be enacted next week by President Joe Biden – will provide the state with $ 1.7 billion to “improve drinking water and sanitation infrastructure across Illinois,” an provision defended by Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois).

Swapping toxic lead water pipes was a Lightfoot campaign promise when she ran for mayor in 2019. But the city has been slow to deliver on her promise, which admittedly costs $ 8-10. billions of dollars.

So far, the city has replaced about ten lines.

We do not yet know what the Chicago funds cut will be. But either way, city and state leaders need to make sure it’s enough to get this important task started faster.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there is no safe level of lead exposure, especially for children. And Chicago has more lead lines than any other American city.

A problem of inheritance

Lead connections were legal in Chicago until 1986. So given the sheer size and cost of the job, it might be unfair to hit the Lightfoot administration too hard not to replace the lead pipes sooner.

The task was supposed to start under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who increased water and sewer charges to cover the cost, but never began the process of removing the pipes.

“For some reason the previous administration didn’t address this,” Lightfoot said in August 2020. “The time to take stock is now.”

But the cost of this calculation is enormous. Replacing lines can cost anywhere from $ 3,000 to $ 10,000 per property, plus the cost of repairing streets, sidewalks and boardwalks torn in the process.

Yet it is a job that needs to be done. A healthy future for our city, especially city children, depends on it.

According to the US EPA, high levels of lead in the body can cause hyperactivity, hearing problems, and low IQs in children.

Pregnant women with higher lead levels may have smaller fetuses and premature birth. For adults, drinking water contaminated with lead can cause high blood pressure, kidney problems, and even reproductive problems for both men and women.

And lead water supply lines aren’t the only culprit. Lead paint in older homes remains a major source of contamination.

The city replaced the lead lines as part of its equity lead service line replacement program for low-income homeowners and the owner-initiated lead service line replacement program.

With the latter program, homeowners can hire a contractor to remove a lead service line, and the city will waive standard permit fees for the work – which could be as high as $ 3,000. The city’s water utility would then connect a lead-free service line and a free water meter.

These are solid efforts, but modest compared to the enormity of the task at hand. That’s why Washington’s push through the federal infrastructure bill’s potable water supply is important – and why the city must be positioned to get its fair share.

The city seeks to move “as quickly as possible”

The mayor’s office said it was “looking forward to working with our federal and state partners” to get the infrastructure money “and to move forward as quickly as possible to replace the lead pipes while continuing. to offer as much help as possible to owners “.

Now it is the city’s job to follow through on this statement.

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