Chicago needs a sen­si­ble plan to get the lead out of wa­ter

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION -

Chicago, a leader in so many ways, has not done a good enough job of pro­tect­ing its res­i­dents from lead in its decades­old wa­ter pipes.

As other cities turned to safer al­ter­na­tives, our city kept re­quir­ing that ser­vice lines be made of lead — un­til Congress made the city stop in 1986. Even tiny amounts of lead can dam­age chil­dren’s brains, and the heavy metal has been tied to other health prob­lems as well, such as kid­ney fail­ure, heart disease, learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties and im­paired hear­ing.

Ser­vice lines are the pipes that carry wa­ter from the city’s street mains to homes. When the city started re­plac­ing wa­ter mains dur­ing Rahm Emanuel’s years as mayor, that would have been a good time to re­place the ser­vice lines, too.

Ev­ery­thing is torn up any­way, and the work­ers are right there.

But the city didn’t re­place the ser­vice lines, which was worse than an op­por­tu­nity lost. Work on the mains can dam­age the chem­i­cal coat­ing that sep­a­rates the lead in pipes from tap wa­ter. Road work and in­stalling wa­ter me­ters can cause sim­i­lar dam­age.

The prob­lem is com­pounded by the num­ber of Chicagoans who were work­ing in build­ings with lead-free wa­ter be­fore the COVID-19 pan­demic struck, but who are now at home drink­ing out of tainted pipes.

The city also has turned a cold shoul­der to a new tech­nol­ogy used in Evanston, Rock­ford, Ar­ling­ton Heights and Lom­bard that places lin­ers in street mains in­stead of dig­ging them up and re­plac­ing them, ac­cord­ing to a re­port last year by Block Club Chicago.

Now, the city is look­ing for a way to fix this prob­lem. It needs to get it right this time, with in­put from all the stake­hold­ers.

Illi­nois has one-eighth of the lead ser­vice lines in the coun­try, and 300,000 to 500,000 of them are in Chicago, ac­cord­ing to the Illi­nois En­vi­ron­men­tal Coun­cil. In­di­vid­u­als

who try to re­place the lines on their own find they have to pay for a va­ri­ety of the per­mits that drive the cost into thou­sands of dol­lars.

One so­lu­tion would be for Illi­nois to cre­ate a pro­gram to re­place lead wa­ter pipes around the state. In ad­di­tion to the state’s big­ger cities, there are hun­dreds of small wa­ter util­i­ties that could use the help.

The best so­lu­tion would be for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to make lead pipe re­place­ment part of a large na­tion­wide in­fra­struc­ture bill. But Chicago needs its own plan in case that bill never ma­te­ri­al­izes.

Wa­ter Com­mis­sioner Randy Con­ner and Bud­get Direc­tor Susie Park on Tues­day told al­der­men a plan is coming soon.

Let’s hope it makes Chicago look like a leader again.


Chicago Depart­ment of Wa­ter Man­age­ment em­ploy­ees work at the site of a wa­ter main break in Jan­uary 2019.

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