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Fact-check: Does Durbin claim about Chicago area’s lead pipes hold water? Flushing it out is no lead-pipe cinch

While Chicago is unique when it comes to its number of known lead service lines, experts told us it’s tough to determine the accuracy of Durbin’s statistic because no national inventory exists.

Sen. Dick Durbin speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol earlier this month.
Sen. Dick Durbin speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol earlier this month.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images file

President Joe Biden’s $2.7 trillion infrastructure plan has sparked criticism from Republicans over what kinds of projects should be included under the category of “infrastructure.”

Last week, CNN anchor Poppy Harlow put the question to the Senate’s Democratic Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who responded with an example from his home state of Illinois.

“Well, I can tell you, I do not exclude clean drinking water from the responsibilities of government and not only dealing with public health issues but creating jobs in America,” Durbin said. “And we have 23% of all the lead pipe leads in America in the Chicagoland area. You bet I want to clean up this water supply, and I consider that infrastructure.”

For decades, the city of Chicago required pipes connecting street water mains to individual properties to be made of the toxic metal. That ended when lead service lines were banned by the federal government in 1986, years after their use began to decline in many other places.

Biden’s proposal — dubbed the American Jobs Plan — seeks to eliminate lead pipes by allocating $45 billion to several U.S. Environmental Protection Agency programs.

So, we wondered if Chicago and its surrounding area really account for nearly a quarter of the nation’s lead pipes, as Durbin claimed.

Both Chicago and Illinois stand out, but national data is limited

While Chicago is unique when it comes to its number of known lead service lines, experts told us it’s tough to determine the accuracy of Durbin’s statistic because no national inventory exists.

“The vast majority of cities don’t know exactly how many lead service lines exist or where they are located,” said Maura Allaire, an assistant professor of water economics and environmental policy at the University of California, Irvine.

Durbin spokesman Joe LaPaille told us in an email that Durbin “misspoke on CNN and said ‘Chicago’ instead of Illinois.”

“However, Chicago does make up a large portion of lead service lines in Illinois, and has more lead service lines than any other city,” LaPaille said.

LaPaille said Durbin got his statistic using figures highlighted by the EPA and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmentalist non-profit group that has pushed for Biden’s administration to expedite the removal of lead service lines.

Sen. Dick Durbin during a visit with Vice President Kamala Harris to Chicago earlier this month.
Sen. Dick Durbin speaks during a visit with Vice President Kamala Harris to a COVID-19 vaccination site in Chicago earlier this month.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP file

The EPA’s website offers an estimated range for the number of lead service lines in the country: 6 to 10 million. Meanwhile, a press release from the Natural Resources Defense Council put the range for Illinois between 730,000 and 1.4 million. To get to 23%, Durbin took the high end of the state estimate and divided it by the low end of the national estimate, LaPaille said.

The EPA’s estimate of more than 6 million is based on survey data published in 2016 by the American Water Works Association, the group representing water utility operators. The agency’s high-end estimate of 10 million comes from survey work conducted by the same group in the 1980s and was adjusted down to 9.3 million in a recent update for federal drinking water regulations.

The 730,000 estimate also comes from the water utilities group, according to Jeremy Orr, senior attorney for the NRDC’s clean water initiative. The 1.4 million figure, on the other hand, comes from more recent data reported by water system operators to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Illinois is one of four states to require operators to report on the material of service lines in their system.

Troy Hernandez, an environmental justice activist, shows a piece of lead pipe obtained from his residence in Pilsen in April.
Troy Hernandez, an environmental justice activist with Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, shows a piece of lead pipe obtained from his residence during his home renovation in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood earlier this month.
Shafkat Anowar/AP file

To reach 1.4 million for the state, the NRDC included both known lead service lines and lines of unknown material that may be lead. Another category included in the state EPA dataset allows water systems to separately list lines of unknown material that are not lead.

The number of lead lines and unknown lines that may be lead in water systems in Cook County, where Chicago is located, and its five surrounding counties is somewhat lower — but not by much: 1 million out of the state’s 1.4 million total are reported in the region.

The 23% estimate Durbin reached for the state’s share “is not unreasonable,” said Tom Neltner, a chemicals policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund who has analyzed Illinois’ approach to developing its inventory.

“But it is difficult to be sure because the national number is so uncertain,” Neltner added.

Taking the 1.4 million pipes in Illinois that are or may be lead and dividing that by the EPA’s updated upper-range estimate of 9.3 million, for instance, lowers the state’s share to 16% and the Chicago area’s to 11%.

Our ruling

Durbin said, “We have 23% of all the lead pipe leads in America in the Chicagoland area.”

His office told us he meant to refer to the entire state, rather than just Chicagoland. Most lead pipes in Illinois are found in Chicago and surrounding counties, however, so Durbin isn’t far off.

The bigger issue with his claim comes in its comparison to the nation. Unlike Illinois, which requires water systems to report how many pipes are or may be lead, there’s no national inventory to use for comparison. The survey estimates cited by the federal government are broad, and both Illinois’ and Chicago’s estimated share of those totals varies considerably depending on which end of the range is used.

We rate Durbin’s claim Half True.

HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

The Better Government Association runs PolitiFact Illinois, the local arm of the nationally renowned, Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking enterprise that rates the truthfulness of statements made by governmental leaders and politicians. BGA’s fact-checking service has teamed up weekly with the Sun-Times, in print and online. You can find all of the PolitiFact Illinois stories we’ve reported together here.

Sources

CNN transcript for New Day, April 13, 2021

“What We Do — And Don’t — Know About Chicago’s Lead Water Problem,” WBEZ, Sept. 19, 2020

“What is the Lead Ban?” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, August 1989

Email: Maura Allaire, assistant professor of water economics and environmental policy at the University of California, Irvine, April 15, 2021

Email: Marc Edwards, professor of environmental and water resources engineering at Virginia Tech, April 14, 2021

Email: Joe LaPaille, Durbin spokesperson, April 14, 2021

Press release, Natural Resources Defense Council, Jan. 15, 2021

Lead service line replacement, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, accessed April 15, 2021

Press release, Natural Resources Defense Council, March 11, 2021

Lead and Copper Rule Revisions, Federal Register, Jan. 15, 2021

National Survey of Lead Service Line Occurrence, Journal AWWA, April 1, 2016

“Water quality–pipe deposit relationships in Midwestern lead pipes,” American Water Works Association, March 4, 2019

Phone interview: Jeremey Orr, senior attorney for the NRDC’s clean water initiative, April 15, 2021

Water supply service line material inventories for reporting year 2019, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, accessed April 14, 2021

Report: Developing lead service line inventories, Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, August 2019

Email: Tom Neltner, chemical policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund, April 15, 2021