Will Illinois Get the Lead Out of Drinking Water?

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker's has a chance to lay out a vision for clean, affordable drinking water for all Illinoisans in his State of the State.

Tomorrow, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker will deliver his 2020 State of the State (“SOTS”) before the Illinois General Assembly. In it, he will layout his priorities for his second year in office. And paramount among those priorities should be addressing how he plans to make good on a campaign promise to “protect clean water… by investing in clean water infrastructure.” Specifically, ensuring access to clean, affordable drinking water for all Illinoisans.

As it stands, one of the biggest threats to drinking water in Illinois is lead. There is no safe level of lead exposure. Therefore, the state should take a page out of neighboring Michigan’s book and take comprehensive action to address lead in drinking water. At the top of the list is pulling lead water pipes out of the ground. Illinois has the most lead service lines (LSLs) of any state in the country—estimated to be between 730,000 LSLs with Chicago estimated to account for half of that total. To do it right, total LSL replacement should come at no cost to individual homeowners—especially overburdened communities and low-income residents. Financially this is no small feat, so in order to make this work Gov. Pritzker needs to work with the legislature to identify dedicated funding for this massive infrastructure undertaking.

As a part of total LSL replacement, Illinois should proactively ban partial lead service line replacements because that practice actually increases exposure to lead in drinking water by releasing pieces of lead that would otherwise lay dormant. Partial LSL replacement is the act of replacing the LSL on the public side of a property but not replacing the LSL that runs under the homeowner’s property. Partial LSL replacement is extremely problematic. Additionally, partial LSL replacement simply is not economically feasible and at the most basic level it entails leaving dangerous lead pipes in the ground. I applaud Illinois Environmental Protections Agency (“IEPA”) for recently proposing a rule change to the plumbing code banning partial LSL replacements. It is a step in the right direction. However, this proposal is limited to plumbers, whereas the state should impose a universal ban of partial LSL replacements that would hold accountable all actors working within the water system.

Lastly, Illinois should set a new lead action level that is significantly lower and much more health protective than the current federal action level of 15 ppb. Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin in which the science has shown us that there is no known safe level for human exposure. With the irreversible harm that results from lead, we need a standard that takes this into account and protects populations most susceptible and vulnerable to lead contamination: pregnant women and children. And with the U.S. EPA’s proposal to weaken Federal Lead and Copper Rule (“LCR”) protections, Gov. Pritzker must rebuke the Trump Administration’s counterproductive actions on drinking water and stand up for Illinoisans by setting a lead standard those shows he values the health and safety of residents throughout the state. A standard also that clearly recognizes and remedies the racial and economic inequalities that exist in drinking water contamination and enforcement.

With one year under his belt, Gov. Pritzker likely has a much better idea of what needs to be done to ensure a thriving future for all Illinoisans—from increased employment and criminal justice reform to tackling climate change and improving infrastructure and everything in between. Yet, nothing is more important that the physical health and wellbeing of all residents of Illinois. And one significant way Gov. Pritzker can ensure the protection of public health throughout the state by leading the nation in tackling the lead in drinking water problem. And doing so before it becomes a crisis.

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