Lightfoot Administration Announces Start of Lead Water Pipe Replacement Program

CHICAGO -- The Lightfoot administration announced today that it will begin a program to replace lead service lines next year. Chicago code required lead service lines far longer than most American cities, until 1986, leaving Chicago with the dubious distinction of having more lead pipes in the ground than any other city in the nation. The program will start with less than 1,000 homes that are mostly located in low-income neighborhoods. 

Chicago environmental and community organizations have urged the City to replace all toxic lead pipes and prioritize free or affordable replacements for communities of color that are most vulnerable to all sources of lead. There is no safe level of lead exposure. 

The following are statements from Blacks in Green (BIG), the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO)  and NRDC: 

Juliana Pino, policy director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, says, “We are encouraged that the City of Chicago is beginning to address replacement of lead service lines for Chicago residents, particularly low-income residents who would never be able to afford replacement on their own. As the City required lead service lines until they were federally prohibited in 1986, Chicago should move to expand and secure funding to fully subsidize costs of replacement for thousands of low-income households, prioritizing areas with the lowest-income residents and other Black and Brown environmental justice communities with the highest cumulative burdens from lead exposure through many sources, including drinking water. We emphasize the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in stating that no level of lead in water is safe — and any successful program must address this on the way to accounting for the devastating lifetime consequences of lead exposure.”

Naomi Davis, founder and director of Blacks in Green, says, “Black Chicago Water Council, a program of BIG, is proud that Mayor Lightfoot chose to undertake the start of a solution to a huge problem her predecessors created then denied -- the killing impact of lead water lines in Chicago infrastructure. But we're concerned when we hear the program will be voluntary and that investment in the low-income household service line replacements program will be capped. This could unintentionally increase the gaping disparity in how public resources are distributed between over-served and underserved Chicago.  

“It's time for breakthrough racial equity in the supply chain of companies serving public projects.  With a commitment and a project of this scale, we could produce a whole new generation of African American tradesmen and women and begin closing Chicago's racial health and wealth gap. This is the perfect opportunity -- and not a moment too soon -- for Mayor Lightfoot to redefine 'business as usual' in Chicago.”

Jeremy Orr, NRDC staff attorney for the Safe Water Initiative, says, “The city’s most vulnerable communities shouldn’t have to wait a century for clean and safe drinking water, especially in the biggest city on the Great Lakes. For starters, that means providing filters to homes with lead service lines as they await removal and expressly banning the dangerous practice of partial lead service line replacements.

"This program is a step in the right direction but it's too small and too slow and there’s a lot of work to be done to ensure that the plan and process for replacing lead pipes throughout Chicago is inclusive, equitable, and prioritizes and protects already overburdened communities. 

“The program must ultimately ensure that the financial burden doesn’t fall on each individual resident, and limit the overall cost to the city and its taxpayers by aligning this new lead pipe replacement work with the city’s Capital Improvement Plan and existing critical water infrastructure projects.”

# # #

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.