Lead water line replacements in Illinois may soar well past 1 million

The cost to replace just 380,000 in Chicago could reach $10 billion, an official said at a U.S. Senate hearing on getting rid of pipes with the brain-damaging metal.

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Chicago Department of Water Management employees at a water main break on the Northwest Side in January 2019.

Chicago Department of Water Management employees repair a water main break on the Northwest Side.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

There are nearly 700,000 lead water lines to homes and businesses across Illinois — more than half in Chicago — that have to be replaced because they are made with brain-damaging lead, government officials warned.

What’s more, that number could be well over 1 million as the state has identified an additional 820,000 water service lines that are made of “unknown material,” Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Director John Kim said at a hearing in Chicago held by U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

The hearing at Shedd Aquarium was held last week to highlight federal funding provided by the infrastructure bill signed into law by President Joe Biden last year.

Chicago and Illinois have more lead line connections to homes than any other city or state, and though it’s been a known problem for years, replacement has been slow. Officials have said the costs are too high for state and local governments to complete so many replacements.

“There is still much work to do,” Duckworth said at the hearing. “These programs are progressing slowly, and significant roadblocks and unforeseen complications are arising through this process.”

“Illinois is believed to have — if not the largest — one of the largest number of lead service lines in the nation,” Kim said. Federal funding “is vital to Illinois being able to take on this formidable yet crucial task.”

In Chicago, the cost of replacing a single lead line can be as high as $30,000, and replacing an estimated 380,000 lines could cost about $10 billion, Chicago Department of Water Management Commissioner Andrea Cheng said.

“This huge cost is also complicated by the fact that in Chicago, like many cities, the water service line is partially owned by the homeowner and partially owned by the city,” Cheng testified.

A water department spokeswoman said Thursday just over 70 lead lines have been replaced by the city. A plan announced in 2020 by Mayor Lori Lightfoot had a goal to replace about 600 lead lines in low-income neighborhoods.

Cheng said daycare centers will be a priority for city crews to replace lead lines with no cost to the businesses. Lead service lines will be replaced along with any repairs to water pipe breaks or leaks, she said.

It’s not clear how much money Chicago will get from last year’s federal infrastructure law, but the state as a whole is initially receiving about $288 million that can be used for the lead line replacements.

The city has said it would take about 50 years to replace all the lead lines.

Critics have said the city could increase its pace and also find an approach that reduces the cost for line replacements. The water department has been exploring its options, according to a spokeswoman.

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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