Mayor Lightfoot Can Get the Lead Out

View of Lake Michigan along Chicago's lakefront

Credit: Photo by Angela Guyadeen

I have to agree with Frank Sinatra when he sings about Chicago being “my kind of town.” While the winters are rough for this former Floridian, after living in the area for nearly 13 years, it’s now my adopted hometown.  From the glittering lakefront and stunning skyline to culinary treasures like my personal favorite -- Rainbow Cone, to the rich history and amazing people, Chicago is easy to love. Anything that takes space in your heart is worth fighting for.

But let’s go back to history, specifically 1986. Up until this year, lead industry lobbyists convinced the City of Chicago to require the use of lead as the only allowed source for drinking water pipes coming into homes across the city. According to The Guardian the directive said, “any pipe 2in or less in diameter connecting a home to the water system had to be lead – and plumbers fought to keep that rule in place for decades.”

This was years and decades after many other cities had given up the dangerous practice. The result (ahem, consequence) is that the “second city” comes in first in the nation in having the most lead service lines – roughly 400,000.

I’ve been monitoring the progress that the City of Chicago is attempting to make on replacing its lead service lines. Despite Mayor Lightfoot’s promise to remove 650 pipes by the end of 2021, approximately 188 have been removed, less than 0.5% of lead service lines in the city. To be fair, let’s give credit where it’s due. No other Chicago mayor has attempted to address this challenge until Mayor Lightfoot decided to take this problem on, saying we must no longer “kick the can down the road.”

I could not agree with the mayor more that we must address this problem ASAP, especially as ‘shocking’ levels of lead have been found in Chicago tap water. In addition, the new analysis by The Guardian found that, “nine of the top 10 zip codes with the largest percentages of high test results were neighborhoods with majorities of Black and Hispanic residents, and there were dozens of homes with shockingly high lead levels. One home, in the majority-Black neighborhood of South Chicago, had lead levels of 1,100 parts per billion (ppb) – 73 times the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limit of 15ppb.”

There is no safe level of lead. Also, communities of color are impacted inequitably, being more likely to suffer from drinking water violations for years. This underscores why the City of Chicago must act urgently – far faster than the 50-year carveout for the city that the state law allows, let alone the current pace which will easily exceed 50 years.

The good news is that there is some help. NRDC worked alongside community partners to pass the new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which includes $15 billion to replace dangerous lead pipes throughout the country. Illinois will receive $106.9 million in 2022 from the EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) specifically for this purpose (plus another $67.9 million to fund any drinking water infrastructure, which could also be used for lead pipe removal). Illinois will continue to receive substantial funds for the following 4 years under this program for lead service line replacement across the state.

While the money won’t cover the cost of the entire project, and key improvements are needed to equitably distribute funding and align this assistance with need, it is an opportunity to snowball progress and get the lead out once and for all.

Like Chicago, many other cities are also grappling with trying to get the lead pipes out ASAP. We have witnessed the results of several communities who have completed the task or are in the home stretch. Cities like Flint and Benton Harbor, Michigan, and Newark, NJ, are showing that the work can be done, long before another generation of children is subjected to lead contaminated drinking water.

Mayor Lightfoot can and should be the next mayor to get the job done. As Sinatra winds down his love song to Chicago, he croons “Chicago is one town that won't let you down. It's my kind of town.” When it comes to getting the lead out of the drinking water in the greatest city in the world, I hope he’s right.

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