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Federal infrastructure money should help bail out Chicago’s lead water line replacement program

Now that the bill is about to become law, city and state leaders must make sure Chicago get its fair share to really tackle this important task.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks about how she would respond if President Donald Trump deploys federal force to Chicago during a press conference at the Guaranteed Rate Field, home of the White Sox, Tuesday afternoon July 21, 2020. Lightfoot launched an awareness campaign called “We Are All One Team” that encourages young people to wear masks, maintain social distance and stop gathering in large groups to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Chicago’s share of the massive federal infrastructure bill could help Mayor Lori Lightfoot honor a campaign promise to replace the city’s lead residential water lines.
Pat Nabong /Sun-Times

When Chicago gets its share of Illinois’ expected $17 billion from the newly passed federal infrastructure bill, we urge Mayor Lori Lightfoot to substantially begin making good on her promise to replace the harmful lead pipes that currently supply water to 400,000 homes.

The bill — expected to be signed into law next week by President Joe Biden — will provide the state with $1.7 billion to “improve drinking and wastewater infrastructure throughout Illinois,” a provision championed by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois).

Swapping out toxic lead water lines was a Lightfoot campaign promise when she ran for mayor in 2019. But the city has been slow in making good on the pledge, which admittedly carries a hefty $8 billion to $10 billion total price tag.

So far, the city has replaced about 10 lines.

We don’t yet know what Chicago’s cut of the funds will be. But whatever it is, city and state leaders must make sure it’s enough to get the ball rolling faster on this important task.

Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there is no safe level of lead exposure, especially for children. And Chicago has more lead lines than any other American city.

A legacy issue

The lead connections were legal in Chicago until 1986. So given the massive size and expense of the job, it might be unfair to knock the Lightfoot administration too hard for not replacing the lead pipes faster.

The task was supposed to begin under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who increased water and sewer fees to cover the cost, but never began the process of removing the lines.

“For whatever reason, the prior administration did not address that,” Lightfoot said in August 2020. “The time of reckoning is now.”

But the cost of that reckoning is tremendous. It can cost between $3,000 to $10,000 per property to replace the lines, plus the cost of repairing the streets, sidewalks and parkways ripped up in the process.

Still, it’s a job that must be done. A healthy future for our city, particularly the city’s children, depends on it.

According to the U.S. EPA, elevated lead levels in the body can cause hyperactivity, hearing problems and lower IQ in children.

Pregnant women with higher lead levels can experience smaller fetuses and premature birth. For adults, lead tainted drinking water can cause hypertension, kidney problems and even reproductive issues for men and women.

And lead water supply lines aren’t the only culprit. Lead paint in older homes still remains a significant source of contamination.

The city has replaced lead lines under its Equity Lead Service Line Replacement Program, aimed at low-income homeowners, and the Homeowner-Initiated Lead Service Line Replacement Program.

With the latter program, homeowners can hire a contractor to remove a lead service line, and the city will waive standard permit fees for the job — which could run as high as $3,000. The city Water Department would then connect a lead-free service line and a free water meter.

These are solid efforts, but modest compared to the enormity of the task at hand. This is why the boost from Washington via the clean drinking water provision of the federal infrastructure bill is important — and why the city must be positioned to get its proper share.

City seeks to move ‘expeditiously as possible’

The mayor’s office said it is “looking forward to working with our federal and state partners” to get the infrastructure cash “and move forward as expeditiously as possible to replace lead pipe while continuing to offer the most assistance possible to homeowners.”

Now it’s the city’s job to make good on that statement.

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