Lead levels in water become latest fodder in Chicago mayor’s race

SHARE Lead levels in water become latest fodder in Chicago mayor’s race

Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas wasted no time to blast the Rahm administration over test results finding lead in drinking water in a small number of metered Chicago homes. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas demanded Thursday that federal and state environmental regulators, including Attorney General Lisa Madigan, investigate why City Hall failed to notify owners of all 165,000 homes with water meters in June that a “small subset” of metered homes had tested positive for elevated lead levels.

The alarming news that 17.2 percent of those tested, metered Chicago homes had elevated lead levels became the latest fodder in the crowded race for mayor, even though Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s name will not be on the ballot.

“Since June, I have been calling on the city to take more aggressive action to address our lead in the drinking water problem, but the Emanuel administration has dismissed me as a panic peddler. Today’s revelations show an unbelievable level of cynicism by the Emanuel administration that frankly smacks of the cover-up we saw in Flint, Michigan,” Vallas said in a statement.

“Just yesterday, Emanuel stated, ‘Chicago’s water is safe’ and ‘meets and exceeds federal EPA standards.’ Chicagoans must know who knew what and when. I am calling on federal and state environmental regulators, as well as Attorney General Lisa Madigan, to open an investigation and get to the bottom of this matter. The public has every right to know exactly what is in their tap water.”

Mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot was also quick to dive in.

She argued that concerned Chicago homeowners “cannot wait until spring” for results of a $750,000 study aimed at determining the cost of and potential funding sources for a multiyear plan to replace lead service lines that carry water from the main to roughly 360,000 Chicago homes.

Mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times file photo

Mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times file photo

“We need immediate measures to ensure safe water, including providing alternative water sources for homes with elevated lead levels and aggressively testing lead levels in other homes. Whatever it takes, this administration has a moral obligation to make this right,” Lightfoot was quoted as saying in an emailed statement.

Lightfoot’s attack against the mayor who appointed and reappointed her as Police Board president was so pointed, you’d think Emanuel was still in the race.

“Once again, the Emanuel administration has shown it doesn’t care about the needs of everyday Chicagoans. As a mother and a homeowner, it is completely outrageous to me that this administration did nothing to inform us of unsafe lead levels in drinking water,” she said.

“This administration has ignored countless opportunities to transparently discuss the problem — when discovering elevated lead levels in June, or long before, such as when beginning to replace aged water mains in 2011 . . . This failure to act will likely result in multiple lawsuits against the city, meaning taxpayers will have to foot the bill for this crisis multiple times.”

Not to be outdone, mayoral candiate Ja’Mal Green tweeted: “This is outrageous. As one of the first candidates to release a water plan, this issue holds dear to me. The city allowed kids to be poisoned and didn’t even tell homeowners! We need to hold accountable this administration for their negligence.”

Vallas and Green have both put forward cost-sharing plans to help homeowners defray the cost of replacing lead service lines and distribute testing kits and water filtration systems until that happens.

Green would tackle the costlier challenger of replacing lead service lines by giving homeowners a choice: Pick your own contractor and assume the entire cost. Or, let the city do the work and share the cost over five to 10 years, through an additional fee on the property tax bill.

Mayoral candidate Ja’Mal Green | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayoral candidate Ja’Mal Green | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

For low-income homeowners, Green would establish a fund that would accept private donations and draw revenue from the city’s $205 million vehicle tax fund.

Vallas would bankroll lead service line replacement with a Neighborhood Conservation Fund that would provide grants, low-interest loans and partial subsidies, depending on income levels.

Seed money would come from excess TIF dollars, developer fees and by asking the state to “stop diverting corporate personal property tax replacement dollars.”


Vallas, Green warn Chicago faces Flint-style drinking water crisis

Aldermen urged to learn from Flint’s water crisis and replace lead service lines

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