Chicago lead-pipe replacement would get major boost from Biden plan, officials say

The president’s infrastructure proposal would replace lead water lines across the country and Chicago has more than any other city.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a press conference with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan and city leaders about water infrastructure and access at Jardine Water Purification Plant in the Near North Side, Thursday morning, May 27, 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The City of Chicago would potentially get a major boost to replace harmful lead pipes under President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, the president’s top environmental official said Thursday.

The president’s bill aims to spend $111 billion for drinking water, waste water and storm water projects across the country, Michael Regan, Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator, said at a news conference in Chicago.

Chicago has more lead service water pipes than any other U.S. city — at least 400,000 homes are estimated to be connected by lead pipes. The city required lead service lines until 1986. Experts say no amount of lead in water is safe.

But replacing those pipes could cost $8.5 billion, the city has said.

“The city is looking to accelerate lead pipe replacement, which is an important first step,” Regan told reporters outside the Jardine Water Purification Plant near Navy Pier. “But we need to do better by our communities. We must identify where the lead pipes are located, remove them quickly and ensure that all our communities — especially our communities of color and low-income communities — are protected from lead in drinking water.”

Last fall, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a small-scale project to begin replacing some lines. The mayor said Thursday she has been working with limited funds and federal dollars will be essential to tackle the problem. 

“A massive scale that is necessary requires a massive amount of funding and we will continue to work with the federal government but also with the state to make sure we get the resources that we need,” Lightfoot said.

The Jardine plant, the world’s largest water treatment facility, also would benefit from Biden’s infrastructure plan with federal dollars for maintenance, Regan said. 

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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