New Year, New Opportunity to Get The Lead Out of Our Water

The slow pace of lead service line replacement has serious public health consequences. Will 2023 be the year Illinois accelerates its lead service line replacement work?

East Side resident Marcelina Pedraza testing a pitcher of filtered water for lead at her home in Chicago


Taylor Glascock for NRDC

I am excited to coauthor this blog with Chakena D. Perry, our new Senior Policy Advocate for the Safe Water Initiative at NRDC! A native Chicagoan and resident of the South Suburbs, Chakena is responsible for assisting in developing cross-programmatic strategies, partnerships, and advocacy efforts to ensure water is safe, sufficient, and affordable from source to tap.

People love to welcome the new year with a resolution. Whether committing to a healthy lifestyle, learning a new skill, or spending more time with family, many people enter the new calendar year setting intentions that will hopefully improve their quality of life.

Here in Illinois, those in leadership positions like Governor Pritzker and Mayor Lightfoot are also thinking about the year ahead. The Governor and the Mayor are likely working on their annual State of the State and State of the City addresses where they will share their vision for the upcoming year and how they plan to best serve the people who elected them to office.

One of the things we are focused on at the Safe Water Initiative is the progress the state of Illinois is making toward getting the lead out of our drinking water - most notably by getting the lead pipes out of communities across the state. Chicago required the use of lead pipes to connect homes to the city’s water system through 1986. This flawed policy made Illinois the state with the most lead service lines. According to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are over 667,000 known lead service lines with an additional 819,000 of unknown material that will need to be examined. 

Thankfully, the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago have finally decided to start taking steps to correct this problem. In 2021, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Illinois Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act. While Mayor Lightfoot became the first mayor of Chicago to decide it is time to take action and get rid of the nearly 400,000 known lead service lines across the city, the efforts have been slow going.

The slow pace of lead service line replacement has public health consequences. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states there is no safe level of lead for children. Even low levels of lead in children have been linked to low IQ, decreased academic achievement, and increased emotional and behavioral problems. In adults, growing evidence suggests that low levels of lead in the blood may also raise the risk of heart disease and of death from cardiovascular disease in adults. In addition, we know that communities of color are disproportionately burdened by lack of clean drinking water protections.

Lead service lines are a public health threat, and the longer they provide drinking water to our homes, the longer the community is at risk.

Thankfully, the Illinois Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act mandates the full replacement of lead service lines. However, the timeline leaves much to be desired since the law gives Chicago 50 years to replace the lines. If you think that is a long time, Chicago can appeal to the Illinois EPA for two subsequent extensions – the first extension totaling up to 10 years, the next totaling up to five years – that can prolong this process up to 70 years! At this rate, both of us will be around 100 years old when Chicago finally gets the lead out, which is a long time to wait for clean drinking water.  

Let’s put this in perspective:

Many of the advocates credited for the progress of this historic legislation won’t reap the benefits until old age, and even worse, the children we are currently fighting for will have lived most of their adult life trapped in the same cycle of slow progress and unsafe water. While it's reassuring that our future grandchildren are expected to reap the benefits of lead service line replacement, this must be a reality for all Chicagoans now.

If you’ve made it this far in the blog, you’re probably thinking the same thing as us:

The harmful effects of lead in drinking water, especially for children, are well-documented, so why aren’t replacement efforts moving at a quicker pace?

One of the arguments defending the slow pace is finding the funding to replace both the public side (typically owned by the city and runs from the street water main to the curb stop) and the side that runs under the customer’s property (the ownership of which is often subject to controversy). Since every community has a unique inventory of service lines, in some cases where records are poor and there are no clear laws requiring lead service lines, identifying and replacing a lead service line can be time-consuming – further delaying the replacement process. However, in other cases (such as in Chicago) where local laws long required lead service lines until a certain date, identifying where the lead pipes are located should be less complex.

Our friends in Michigan have addressed this problem through an updated state Lead and Copper Rule, which mandates that the water utilities replace all of its lead service lines within 20 years with a deadline of 2041. The law was challenged in court and successfully defended, blocking legal claims from cities and water utilities aimed at  dismantling the nation’s strongest lead protection thus ensuring  the safeguards remain in place. There are additional notable provisions in the law, such as eliminating the dangerous practice of partial lead service line replacement and requiring updated sampling protocols to better ensure water is tested from within the lead service line and not just at the tap.

However, a cornerstone to the Michigan Lead and Copper Rule is the requirement that water utilities pay to replace the full lead service line which shifts the cost burden away from residents. This approach is the most equitable and efficient way to replace lead service lines since water utilities can systematically remove pipes one block at a time. Unfortunately, Illinois hasn’t utilized this approach, which has resulted in the tragically slow pace of lead pipe removal.

In addition, our friends in New Jersey recognized that efforts to supply safe drinking water could stall if a homeowner decided against replacing their lead pipes. If only one part of the line is replaced, a dangerous practice known as partial lead service line replacement, it could increase the amount of lead in drinking water in homes. To address this issue, the city of Newark passed an ordinance for mandatory lead service line replacement, which includes a Right to Entry provision. This measure enables contractors to access a resident’s property and replace the lead service line. In a renter-dominated city like Newark, eliminating the need to track down property owners speeds up the replacement process and improves efficiency by allowing contractors to replace full blocks of service lines instead of select properties. Further, the New Jersey state legislature passed a bill enabling municipalities across the state to adopt similar ordinances, which demonstrates how cities and states can work together to expedite lead service line replacement for all.

Michigan and New Jersey have provided a blueprint for replacing lead pipes efficiently and equitably. Residents in many U.S. cities, including Illinois, are expected to pay to replace the portion of the pipe that extends under private property.

A recent study by American University and Environmental Defense Fund demonstrates that programs relying on customers to pay to have their portion of the lead pipe replaced often puts low-income and minority households at greater risk of lead exposure. If the individual can’t afford to pay for the portion under private property, partial lead service line replacement is often done which has negative health consequences as previously noted. Requiring a utility financed program has proven to be a major success and alleviates the financial burden of homeowners replacing their lead service lines. Our city and state have the opportunity to follow suit.

Many of us don’t succeed at fulfilling our laundry list of new year’s resolutions simply because starting the process can be overwhelming. We know that for a thriving, healthy Illinois, safe drinking water is essential for accomplishing this goal. What if our leaders decided to start treating lead service line replacement with the urgency it deserves?

How You Can Help 

If you live in Illinois, a key step you can take today (through February 17, 2023) to hold our leaders accountable, is to submit a public comment to the Illinois EPA expressing the importance of allocating lead service line replacement funds equitably and sufficiently. With millions of dollars available through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Chicago and Illinois are finally poised to welcome in millions of dollars to get the lead pipes out, especially for our most vulnerable communities. 

As we prepare for the possibilities of what 2023 can bring, the opportunity to build momentum remains ripe for the taking. Getting the lead service lines out of the ground is one way to ensure an array of public health benefits that will not only positively impact the citizens of Illinois right now but also for generations to come.

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