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$2M city contract will provide free lead filtration systems to 30K metered homes

A residential water meter installed by the city of Chicago. | Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has awarded a $2 million contract to a Maryland company to provide free water filtration systems to owners of Chicago homes with water meters after some tested positive for elevated lead levels.

The contract calls for Safeware, Inc. to “supply and deliver ZeroWater pitchers and filters” to owners of metered homes that request them.

Water Management Commissioner Randy Conner has pegged the cost of each filtration system at $60. At that rate, it would cost the city $9.9 million to provide them, if all 165,000 metered Chicago homes take the city up on its offer.

The initial, $2 million contract would only be enough to supply filtration systems to about 30,000 metered homes.

Department spokeswoman Megan Vidis did not explain whether Safeware would be awarded subsequent contracts if demand exceeds that.

She would only say that the contract covers an “initial order of 30,500 filter sets” and that the city would “take the necessary steps to meet the demand for filter sets to qualified residences.”

“These sets are certified to reduce lead by NSF international, an independent certification organization,” Vidis wrote Tuesday in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“DWM has been in contact and is distributing filter sets to residents who have tested over the EPA action level for lead in drinking water through the City’s 311 lead testing program, Chicago’s Water Quality Study and the DWM/Chicago Department of Public Health’s water testing program,” she wrote. Sets will be hand-delivered to those 426 homes, she said.

In addition, the department “is also distributing filter set registration information to residents who have received a water meter since 2001 through the MeterSave program,” she wrote.

Earlier this month, the Emanuel administration came under fire for failing to notify the entire universe of metered homes that a “small subset” of metered homes had tested positive for elevated lead levels.

In June, the city found out that 15 metered homes, or 11 percent of those tested at that time, had elevated lead levels that exceeded the EPA standard of 15 parts per billion. Only those homeowners were notified.

In late October, City Hall found out the figure had grown to 51 homeowners, or 17.2 percent of 296 homes tested.

Officials characterized the number that test positive as a “small sub-set” of homes.

Then and only then was the decision made to notify the owners of all 165,000 metered homes about the free filtration systems available — while the city continued to install meters.

Emanuel has defended the city’s handling of the alarming results.

The mayor has noted that, since 2001 when the city started heavily promoting meter installation to conserve water, the number of children in Chicago testing positive for elevated lead levels has gone from one in four to one in 100.

“I have a water meter at our house. Had it since 2011. We still have it. Our kids grew up with it. Our water is safe,” the mayor said then.

“If I thought in any way this was a risk … I wouldn’t have it in my own home when my kids were growing up. I would do other things as mayor.”

Mayoral candidates Paul Vallas and Lori Lightfoot have accused City Hall of a cover-up.

But Emanuel has argued that the city did right thing by methodically conducting testing to first to determine whether the installation of new water mains had let loose particles that triggered elevated lead levels, then by moving on to the 165,000 homes with meters.

“If you’re going to make decisions on public health, they have to be based [on] science. … You don’t make major public health decisions based on a set of 15 homes. Less than 10 percent of the whole study. … As soon as we had something that was 51 [homes], we actually did” go public, the mayor has said.

Emanuel has noted that a study that “no other city has done” will continue for the next two years to test the entire universe of metered homes.

“We took the unusual step in the middle of a study to alert the public. … Nobody in the middle of a study does public information. We’re doing that because we feel we have a responsibility to actually inform people,” the mayor has said.

“If you were doing it purely on public health, you would wait for the completion. … We did what is unprecedented, not just in conducting the study but an unprecedented step to inform people in the midst of a study.”