9-19-2020-10-15-12-AM-4118859

‘Not in my lifetime’

SW Siders skeptical about lead-pipe replacement plans

By Tim Hadac

September 18, 2020

Southwest Siders voiced skepticism last week over a Lightfoot Administration plan to start replacing potentially dangerous lead pipes that carry drinking water to people across the city.

The plan was unveiled at a Sept. 10 City Hall press conference. Starting at an undetermined time later this year, the City will begin accepting applications from low-income homeowners who want their lead service lines replaced.

The City is making the move after findings that indicate that some residences in Chicago have elevated levels of lead in their drinking water.

Lead is a heavy metal that is toxic. It accumulates in the body and causes brain damage and neurological disorders, especially in children. Federal health authorities have long stated that no level of lead is safe.

The lead issue came to light after the City began an effort to install water meters at homes across Chicago.

Citywide, more than 130,000 homes have voluntarily participated in the Department of Water Management’s MeterSave program since it was launched in 2009. Central to the program is installation of water meters said to save homeowners money.

In the last two years, the DWM’s own data has shown that as much as 20 percent of homes with MeterSave meters have elevated levels of lead in their drinking water.

An investigation launched in 2016 appears to indicate that meter installation disrupts the protective orthophosphate coating in water pipes, meaning that lead seeps into drinking water. Just about every single-family home in Chicago built before 1986 has lead pipes running from the water main at the street to the home itself.

Drinking water safe; or is it?

Despite the concern, Mayor Lori Lightfoot insisted at her press conference that Chicago’s drinking water is safe.

Some commuters outside the CTA Orange Line station at Pulaski last week did not see it that way.

“I don’t see how [Mayor Lightfoot] can tell us that our [drinking] water is safe, but at the same time announce that all the lead pipes need to be replaced,” said Charlie G—mez. “How stupid does she think we are?”

Linda Tejeda said she does not believe the mayor’s claims about drinking water being safe, “but I am pleased that she’s at least trying to do something about these lead pipes. That’s more than what [Mayor] Rahm [Emanuel] did for eight yearsÑnothingÑor what [Mayor Richard M.] Daley did for 20 yearsÑnothing. So I give her some credit.”

Danny Toporkiewicz laughed when he heard about the proposed pace of the lead-line replacement.

“I’m 37 years old,” he said. “You know when the City will get around to replacing the lead pipes in front of my house? Not in my lifetime. That much I’m sure of.”

Ester Miranda said the mayor’s plan worried her.

“As a mom, I’m worried about what kind of water I’m giving to my children when I turn on the tap,” she said. “I like that at least she’s admitting there is a problem, but it looks like by the time my lead pipes get replaced, my son and daughters will be grown. My that time, how much lead will have accumulated in their bodiesÑand what impact would that have on their kids, when they have them? We need a solution now, not 10, 20, 30 years from now.”

She added that she does not have the estimated $10,000-plus that it would cost to replace the lead service lines at her homeÑyet does not qualify as a low-income Chicagoan.

A two-pronged plan

The City is offering two methods of City-assisted replacement: The Equity Lead Service Line Replacement Program for low-income residents and the Homeowner-Initiated Lead Service Line Replacement Program. Both will take effect Jan.1, pending City Council approval.

The Equity Lead Service Line Replacement Program will provide complete lead service line replacement for eligible low-income residents. Homeowners may qualify for a free full lead service line replacement if they meet all of the following qualifications: _

¥ Own and reside in their home;

¥ Have a household income below 80 percent of the area median income ($72,800 for a family of 4); and,

¥ Have consistent lead concentrations above 15 ppb in their water, as tested by the Department of Water Management.

Under the Equity Lead Service Line Replacement Program, qualifying homeowners will have their lead service line replaced all the way from the water main into the home by contractors paid fully by the City. Per the Municipal Code, the service line beginning at the water main to the external shut-off valve, usually located under the parkway, is owned and maintained by the City. From the external shut-off valve into the home, the service line is the property and responsibility of homeowners. Single-family homes and two-flats will also receive a free water meter if there was not one already installed, to help residents save money on their water bills.

Lightfoot said the Equity Lead Service Line Replacement Program will be paid for by up to $15 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funds in 2021. There will be an ongoing application process that will allow a number of applicants to receive free replacements. This number will be capped based on a yearly basis, according to the available funding secured for the program each year going forward.

The Homeowner-Initiated Lead Service Line Replacement Program is for homeowners that want to hire a contractor and remove the existing lead service line on their property. Under this program, the City will waive_standard_permit fees_for the project, which could amount to a savings of over $3,000._The City will connect the new service line to the water main and install a free water meter upon completion of the replacement.

To qualify for the fee waiver, it must be a standalone request – homeowners cannot be asking for it in conjunction with a home renovation or expansion that requires an upsizing of the water line.

Some critics of the mayor’s plan said it moves too slowly. One alderman tweeted that with just 750 residential lead service lines to be replaced in 2021, it will take the City until the year 2553 to replace lines at all 400,000 residences.

Others wondered aloud where the City will find the projected $8.5 billion to fund the whole project.

Lightfoot acknowledged that the $8.5 billion “does not exist right now,” but added called the endeavor “a steep and costly mountain that we will need to climb.”

The City has commissioned a technical report to explore the full spectrum of funding and operational options for lead service line replacement. The report is expected to be released in the coming months. A working group comprised of stakeholders, regulators and aldermen will be convened to provide input and recommendations based on the report as the City continues to develop its long-term lead service line replacement plan.

More information on the Lead Service Line Replacement Program is available at LeadSafeChicago.org.

(Editor’s Note: More news coverage and photos in the print edition of the Greater Southwest News-Herald, available on local newsstands. Or better yet, call 708-496-0265 during weekday business hours and order convenient home delivery for about 50 cents a week.)

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