Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Friday he’s had a water meter in his Ravenswood home since 2011 and, if he thought it caused elevated lead levels in drinking water, he never would have allowed the meter to stay there while his kids were growing up.
Since 2001, when the city started promoting the installation of water meters to promote water conservation, the number of children in Chicago testing positive for elevated lead levels has gone from one in four to one in 100, Emanuel said.
“I have a water meter at our house. Had it since 2011. We still have it. Our kids grew up with it. Our water is safe,” the mayor said.
“If I thought in any way this was a risk, I wouldn’t have it my own home when my kids were growing up. I would do other things as mayor.”
One day after his Department of Water Management went public with the alarming news that 17.2 percent of tested Chicago homes with water meters had elevated lead levels, Emanuel declared Chicago’s drinking water safe and defended his administration’s handling of the controversy.
Emanuel said the city did the right thing by methodically conducting testing to first to determine whether the installation of new water mains had let loose particles that triggered elevated lead levels, then by moving on to start testing the 165,000 Chicago homes with meters.
In June, the city found out that 15 metered homes, 11 percent of those tested at that time, had elevated lead levels that exceeded the EPA standard of 15 parts-per-billion. Only those homeowners were notified.
Last Friday, they found out the figure was 17.2 percent, or 51 homeowners of 296 tested metered homes.
Then and only then was the decision made to notify the owners of all 165,000 metered homes and offer those homeowners free $60 filtration systems while continuing to install meters.
“If you’re going to make decisions on public health, they have to be based [on] science….You don’t make major public health decisions based on a set of 15 homes. Less than 10 percent of the whole study … As soon as we had something that was 51 [homes], we actually did” go public, the mayor said.
Emanuel noted that a study that “no other city has done” will continue for the next two years to test the entire universe of metered homes.
“Because of our interest in alerting the public, we took the unusual step in the middle of a study to alert the public….Nobody in the middle of a study does public information. We’re doing that because we feel we have a responsibility to actually inform people,” he said.
“If you were doing it purely on public health, you would wait for the completion…We did what is unprecedented, not just in conducting the study but an unprecedented step to inform people in the midst of a study.”
Emanuel reminded reporters yet again that his pediatrician father led the crusade against lead paint and it’s an issue he takes seriously.
That’s apparently why he reacted angrily to the suggestion from mayoral candidates and progressive aldermen that his administration had opened Chicago taxpayers up to a massive liability by engaging in a cover-up with potential to trigger a public health crisis akin to the one in Flint, Michigan.
“You want to ascribe motivation? Let’s go. We asked for a study that nobody ever asked for. We won a case. We kept the study going. In the middle of a study, even with preliminary data, we then said we’re gonna make sure it’s informed,” he said.
“We’re doing what is the responsible thing.”
Alderman Scott Waguespack (32nd), chairman of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, has accused Emanuel of “punting” the multibillion dollar problem of lead service lines that carry water from the main to individual homes.
Nothing infuriated Emanuel more — particularly after he ordered a separate, $750,000 study by the global engineering firm of CDM Smith to evaluate the cost of and potential funding sources for a multiyear plan to replace lead service lines that carry water from the main to about 360,000 Chicago homes.
“I’m actually not leaving a problem. I’m leaving a plan. That’s the responsible thing,” he said.
“Do you know of any plan I got left on any of the problems I got left with? Come on. Be on the level. All right?”
After testifying on the final day of City Council budget hearings, Corporation Counsel Ed Siskel also flatly denied that the city’s decision to wait until this week to notify the owners of metered homes had opened the door to a flood of potential lawsuits.