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After halting water meter installations in response to high lead levels, Lightfoot awards $16.2M contract to provide free filtration systems

The contract calls for Safeware to provide a ZeroWater pitcher and “six cartridges certified to remove lead if used correctly” to owners of metered homes that request them. Homes where water has tested positive for elevated lead levels also receive a kit.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot holds a news conference at Navy Pier last month.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot holds a news conference at Navy Pier last month on the day she halted citywide installation of water meters. The installations were stopped because more elevated lead levels had been found in the drinking water at Chicago homes where meters had been installed.
Fran Spielman/Chicago Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has awarded a $16.2 million contract to a Maryland company to provide free water filtration systems to owners of Chicago homes with water meters after even more homes tested positive for elevated lead levels in their drinking water.

The new contract calls for Safeware, Inc. to provide a ZeroWater pitcher and “six cartridges certified to remove lead if used correctly” to owners of metered homes that request them. Homes where water has tested positive for elevated lead levels also receive a kit.

City Hall was negotiating the five-year contract when Lightfoot called a halt to citywide meter installations last month. That decision came after another round of tests showed more elevated lead levels in drinking water at homes where meters had been installed.

The contract then was expanded as the city braced for an avalanche of responses to its offer of free water filter sets, officials said.

The cost of the pitcher and cartridges under Safeware’s $2 million contract awarded last fall was $66-per-kit. The new price is $21.26.

“The Department of Water Management is underway with a robust community outreach campaign focused on engaging and registering residents for free water filter sets and water testing as we continue to research the possible impact of water system construction on residential lead levels,” Water Management spokesperson Megan Vidis wrote in response to questions about the new contract.

Vidis noted that roughly 25,000 filter sets have been requested and shipped so far in response to an outreach campaign that includes sending mailings and emails to homeowners and attending community events “to reach and register residents.”

“DWM has awarded a five-year, low-bid contract to continue providing water filter sets as we expect a strong response to our outreach efforts,” Vidis wrote in an email.

“While drinking water remains safe, out of an abundance of caution, the city encourages residents with water meters to request free water filter sets and testing.”

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration came under fire for not telling owners of all 231,000 customers with metered accounts 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 meter installation.

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 meter installation. The last was installed June 28.

The city tested first to determine whether installing new water mains had dislodged particles, elevating lead levels, Emanuel said last year.

An EPA study of Chicago homes in 2013 had found that disruptions to water lines can increase 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 meter installation.

Since the unprecedented suspension of meter installations, the city has launched a study to evaluate “the potential impact of different types of meters on residential lead levels.” Preliminary results are expected by Dec. 31, Vidis said.

“Decisions will be made when a reason for the increase in lead levels associated with meter installation has been identified,” she wrote.

“Until a solution is identified … we are offering a free water filter set … to all customers who have a meter and their tenants.”

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 the day she “hit the pause button,” as she put it, Lightfoot 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 then.