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Lightfoot tackles lead water line replacement by starting small

For now, the city is replacing lead service pipes at only 600 homes, and only in impoverished neighborhoods. If owners hire and pay their own contractors, the city will waive up to $3,300 in permit fees, connect the new line to the water main and install a free water meter.

Chicago Department of Water Management employees at a water main break on the Northwest Side in January 2019.
The Chicago Department of Water Management — shown fixing a water main break on the Northwest Side last year — will be replacing lead service lines carrying water from the mains into homes and other buildings. A pilot program announced Thursday will replace the service lines for 750 homes in impoverished areas. That $15 million pilot program will be paid for with federal Community Development Block Grant funds.
Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has accused her predecessor of punting an $8.5 billion problem and said the “time of reckoning is now” for replacing lead service lines carrying water from street mains to nearly 380,000 Chicago homes.

But the plan she unveiled Thursday is more like dipping a toe in the water instead of diving right in.

Rather than ask all Chicago homeowners to share the cost, Lightfoot will start small, with the city replacing lead service pipes at only 600 homes in impoverished Chicago neighborhoods.

For homeowners willing to hire contractors and assume replacement costs, the city will waive up to $3,300 in permit fees, connect the new service line to the water main and install a free water meter when the project is completed. To qualify, it must be a “stand-alone” request, not related to a renovation or expansion that requires a larger water line, officials said.

The city will also choose an entire block — roughly 50 homes — where all service lines will be replaced as the water main is replaced. The city has applied for an Illinois EPA revolving loan of up to $4 million, Water Management Commissioner Randy Conner said.

The so-called “Equity Lead Service Line Replacement Program” covers one-thousandth of 1% of all endangered Chicago homes.

“At this rate, it’s gonna take 500 years,” former mayoral challenger Paul Vallas told the Sun-Times.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), Lightfoot’s City Council floor leader, tweeted: “The project should be done by 2553.”

During a City Hall news conference, Lightfoot defended her start-small approach, arguing that “undoing the extensive network of legacy service lines” would be a “steep and costly mountain to climb,” but you must start somewhere.

“There are always gonna be critics. There are always gonna be people who think that they know more than everyone else. But the reality is, this is a legacy issue that has not been previously addressed and we are taking the first steps,” she said.

“We could do what a lot of other administrations have done, which is not touch this issue. That’s not the right thing to do. ... This has been a problem for a long time that has never been addressed — since 1986 when we stopped forcing homeowners to install lead service lines. ... We have to start climbing this hill and we’re doing that today.”

Lightfoot seemed to save her harshest criticism for Villegas, without mentioning his name. Villegas could not be reached for comment.

“Our underground infrastructure is complicated, so it’s not an easy fix. It’s not something that, even if we had all the resources, we could flick a light switch and get done. I would hope that people would be understanding of that and really educate themselves, particularly before they take to a medium like Twitter. Let’s be a little smarter about what we comment on and get the information first,” she said.

The $15 million pilot program will be paid for with federal Community Development Block Grant funds.

To qualify for free service line replacement, Chicagoans must: own the homes they live in; have a household income below 80 percent of an area’s median income, or $72,800 for a family of four; and have “consistent lead concentrations in their drinking water above 15 parts-per-billion.”

Qualifying single-family homes and two-flats without water meters will receive meters as the service line is replaced.

In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times last week, Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett acknowledged for the first time that Chicago homeowners will ultimately be required to share the cost to replace service lines — through higher water bills.

Lightfoot said it’s way too soon to say how large that increase might be, as Chicago homeowners brace for massive tax increases to erase a 2021 budget shortfall that the mayor now pegs at $1.25 billion.

She won’t know until she gets results of a “technical report” commissioned by the city to explore the “full spectrum of funding and operations options” to replace lead service lines citywide.

“We’re rolling out this Phase 1 series of initiatives, mindful of the fact that we have the budget shortfalls that we have. ... There’s money available to pay for it. And then, we will continue to work with our partners at the state level and the federal level to find additional funding so we can scale this up in the out years.”

No city in America has more lead service lines than Chicago. They desperately need to be replaced to prevent lead exposure, even though Lightfoot insisted that Chicago’s drinking water is safe.

As a mayoral candidate, Lightfoot accused then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel of engaging in a “cover-up” of what she called a major public health issue.

She argued then that concerned homeowners couldn’t wait for results of a $750,000 study to determine the cost of and potential funding for a plan to replace lead service lines.

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

Two months after taking office, Lightfoot insisted Chicago’s drinking water was safe. But she also paused meter installation citywide after another round of tests at metered homes showed more elevated lead levels.

During the campaign, Vallas and Ja’Mal Green warned Chicago could face a water crisis akin to the one in Flint, Michigan unless the city halted main-line construction and started a cost-sharing plan to replace lead service lines.

On Thursday, Vallas pushed the plan he unveiled then.

“Do widespread testing. Make it possible for poor families to purchase water filtration systems, because not everybody can run out and buy bottled water. And do a massive lead pipe replacement plan by issuing bonds, amortizing the interest and funding those bonds with money from TIF districts that expire,” said Vallas, who was city revenue and budget director and Chicago Public Schools CEO under Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Vallas said homeowners who can afford it should share the cost of replacing their lead service pipes.

But, he argued, there are ways to do that and ease the burden. Apply a means test and waive either part or all of the cost for the poorest families. For homeowners who can afford it, raise water fees gradually over 10 years. Create an environmental remediation fund seeded with city revenue that can issue grants or subsidize longer-term payment plans.

“There are no safe levels of lead — period,” he said.