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Lightfoot pauses water meter installations after more tests show homes with elevated lead levels

Of the 510 homes now tested by the city, 36 homes show lead levels that exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s guideline.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot at Navy Pier.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot talks to reporters about lead levels in Chicago’s water before attending a police graduation ceremony Tuesday at the grand ballroom at Navy Pier.
Fran Spielman/Chicago Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot insisted Tuesday that Chicago’s drinking water is safe, despite hitting the pause button on meter installation citywide after another round of water tests at metered homes showed more elevated lead levels.

Last fall, Rahm Emanuel’s administration came under fire for not telling owners of all 165,000 homes with water meters that a “small subset” of metered homes had tested positive for elevated lead levels.

Since then, another 210 homes have been tested before and after meters were installed.

Lead levels rose in 22% of those homes — by at least 2.5 parts-per-billion. Of all 510 homes now tested by the city, 36 homes — 7.1% — show lead levels higher than the 15-parts-per-billion guideline set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Lightfoot considered those results “statistically significant” enough to halt the voluntary installation of water meters. The last meter was installed June 28.

“We don’t know specifically what the issue is with the meter. We just know that, in a certain number of meters, we saw an increase in lead levels,” Lightfoot told a news conference outside Navy Pier.

The city had conducted testing first to determine whether the installation of new water mains had let loose particles that triggered elevated lead levels, Emanuel said last year.

An EPA study of Chicago homes in 2013 had found that disruptions to water lines can cause increased lead levels. A protective coating can build up inside older lead pipes, but that coating can be damaged when the pipe is disturbed, such as by the installation of meters.

“Until we get to a point where we believe that the meters — whether it’s these meters or, [if] there are other models out there that we’re testing — don’t produce elevated lead levels, we won’t start the program again,” Lightfoot said.

“What we’re doing is looking at other alternatives. Taking additional steps with the current meters. ... Testing those internally in the lab. Once we get to a place where we believe the meters are safe, we’ll start the program anew.”

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), chairman of the City Council’s Zoning Committee, praised Lightfoot for “erring on the side of caution” by halting meter installations.

“This water quality issue is an issue that Chicagoans are worried about,” Tunney said.

“They’re gonna look at that technology and the equipment ... and see if there’s a less disruptive meter out there.”

Already, 135,000 buildings and 179,000 residences have voluntarily had meters installed to encourage conservation.

A water meter in the basement of a Chicago home.
About 179,000 residences have been signed up for voluntary installation of water meters; measuring water use is expected to encourage conservation.
Sun-Times file

Lightfoot urged all of those homeowners, particularly those with children or pregnant women, to take the city up on its 8-month-old offer to get their water tested and receive a free filter.

So far, only 10% of those homeowners have requested filters. To boost participation, the Lightfoot administration plans to launch a new outreach program using community organizations, aldermanic offices and personal visits.

In spite of those extraordinary steps, Lightfoot stressed that “Chicago’s drinking water is safe.”

The mayor noted the Department of Public Health “receives lead tests regularly from local doctors” and that “no one who lives in any of the addresses” has tested positive for elevated lead levels in their blood.

“I have a water meter in my house. We regularly flush our water. We use a filter. And we recently had our water tested and it came back safe. I urge homeowners to do exactly as we did,” she said.

In declaring the city’s water safe, Lightfoot sounded a lot like her predecessor, who told reporters last fall he had a water meter in his own house.

“Our water is safe. If I thought in any way this was a risk, one I wouldn’t have it my own home when my kids were growing up,” Rahm Emanuel said then.

Last year, Lightfoot was among a parade of mayoral candidates to accuse Emanuel of a “cover-up.”

She argued then that concerned Chicago homeowners “cannot wait” 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 at about 360,000 Chicago homes.

“Whatever it takes, this administration has a moral obligation to make this right,” she said.

On Tuesday, the mayor was asked whether she was still committed to replacing those service lines. That’ll cost billions on top of a looming, $1 billion spike in pension payments.

“We’re looking at different ways and models from other cities. But we’re not prepared at this point to offer up a specific proposal because the challenges are great with that program,” she said.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), Lightfoot’s most outspoken City Council critic, accused the new mayor of jumping the gun after “thousands” of homeowners have voluntarily installed meters to promote conservation.

“Unless the mayor has a $6 billion funding proposal to fix all the lead pipes in Chicago, it’s not fair to say that we’re gonna stop this program that saves residents money, lowers their water bills just because an inaccurate sampling” has produced elevated lead levels, Lopez said. It was inaccurate, he argued, because it “wasn’t a scientific sampling.”

Lightfoot’s decision to stop installing meters, at least temporarily, interrupts a program tailor-made to stop the free flow of water to Chicago customers that has been a controversy for decades.

Chicago is believed to be the only big city in the nation that does not meter all of its annual water use.

For years, aldermen resisted meters amid concern they could result in dramatically higher water bills for constituents who had grown accustomed to watering their lawns, washing their cars and running half-empty dishwashers and washing machines.

Ten years ago, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley offered an incentive plan to overcome those fears.

It gave Chicago homeowners who volunteered for meters the chance to have their water bills frozen for seven years. Under the MeterSave program, the water bill after a meter was installed at no cost to the homeowner was to be no higher than it was when the water was flowing freely for a flat fee.

The only caveat was that the property not be sold or transferred during the seven-year period, that homeowners pay their water bills promptly and that there are no leaks, broken pipes or plumbing problems on the property.