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Why removing Chicago's lead service lines for water will take time

It could take the city up to 40 years to replace all of the lines that are worrying residents and officials.
Posted at 10:08 PM, Dec 23, 2023

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are 9.2 million lead service lines carrying water into homes and businesses across the U.S. 

An alarming health statistic to experts, as scientists say "there is no safe level of lead exposure."

In November the EPA announced a proposal that looks to replace all lead pipes leading to households in the U.S. within the next 10 years. It would also improve sampling protocols used by public water systems. All of this, a monumental task, especially for cities like Chicago.

"We're number one in the country, 400,000 lead service lines. And I think this it's incumbent upon this administration, as well as this city council, to take the lead on this and finally address this issue that's been plaguing our community for decades," said Gilbert Villegas, the alderman of Chicago's 36th ward.

Villegas says finding the money to make this happen is going to be a challenge. Nearly $50 billion has been allocated by Congress to upgrade the nation's drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. Of that $50 billion, $15 billion has been dedicated to replacing lead service lines.

"However, the problem is, is that we're talking for Illinois alone or for Chicago, it's going to be anywhere between 12 to 15 billion alone for us. So obviously, there's more money that's needed from the federal level for the state level to here locally as well," Villegas said.

So, where does Chicago stand in accomplishing its goal to replace lead service lines? City officials say they are working towards removing 10,000 lines a year. At that rate, it could take the city up to 40 years to replace all of the lines.

"We have a lot more to figure out still, particularly in financing. But I think, you know, we've really made a lot of progress over the last few years," said Andrea Cheng, Chicago's commissioner of water management.

Cheng says her department is working to increase the number of lead service lines replaced each year.

"Our goal for this year is 4,500. We are over 4,200 right now. So, we're right on track to meet that goal in the next year of 8,000," Cheng said.

But, she says getting folks committed to the construction that is required in order to replace a line can be hard.

"Most people don't even know what their water service line is, right? And that's the small pipe that connects your water main that's running down the street over to your home. And most of those in most cities are partially owned by the city, partially owned by the homeowner," Cheng said.  "We want to get in there, do the whole thing for free is our goal with our programs."

But it's a critical problem Chicagoans say needs to be addressed sooner than later.

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"When I was buying my home, my inspector was like, 'You have a lead service line. We all do, you know, no big deal.' Like there's this kind of like ... there's a lot of desensitization. Like people are desensitized from the extremities of lead service lines. But we know from health officials that there's no safe level of lead," said Gina Ramirez, the Midwest outreach manager for Natural Resources Defense Council.

Ramirez, a third generation Chicagoan, says her mistrust of old pipes goes back to her childhood.

"So, I grew up drinking bottled water in my home. My house, my parents' house, is 100 years old. So, my parents never trusted the tap. There was four of us. They spent a lot of their time and money shopping for water, you know, cooking with bottled water, preparing their coffee, you know, giving us bottles of water to take to school," Ramirez said.

As a parent now herself, Ramirez says she doesn't want her children to grow up facing the same water concerns.

"We don't need another generation drinking out of a lead straw," Ramirez said.

Having helped her parents navigate the process of getting their lead service line replaced, she know it can be done.

"It was such a long kind of burdensome process, but they're so excited now that they can, like, drink water out of the tap and like, prepare soup and make coffee. It's just like a lot more easily. And, you know, they're on a fixed income. They're older. And like the $3 or $8 they spend a week on water adds up," Ramirez said.

While the issue is water under the bridge for Ramirez's family, many Chicagoans will likely be waiting awhile for their lines to be replaced.