May 9, 2023 - News

Chicago's lead pipe removal is still lagging

Photo of pipes piled up in a work space

A pile of lead lines removed in Gary, Indiana. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

Chicago water officials are again missing targets for replacing toxic lead water lines that connect more than 400,000 city homes to water mains.

Why it matters: The pipes can leach brain-damaging lead into drinking water. Health officials say no level of lead ingestion is safe.

  • An Axios analysis found that more than 80% of city homes tested from spring 2018 to 2022 had lead in their water. More than one-third had lead levels above the threshold for bottled water.

Driving the news: In January, the city was required to replace lead lines with safer materials anytime a break or leak was found on a line.

  • Based on the number of breaks in previous years, water officials expected to replace 4,000 to 5,000 leaky lead lines this year.
  • But the Department of Water Management (DWM) appears behind in meeting its goals, having replaced just 456, or about 11%, by April 27.

What they're saying: DWM spokesperson Megan Vidis tells Axios the agency expects that number to "increase substantially" later this year.

  • Vidis explained that the number of breaks is linked to "many factors, like weather and the age of the pipe."

Context: This isn't the first time the department has lagged on removals. A separate 2021 initiative to replace 600 lines a year in low-income homes achieved just 280 removals in two years.

  • This year, however, that program finally appears on track, having completed more than 200 low-income replacements so far, according to DWM.

Yes, but: In Newark, New Jersey, water officials replaced 23,000 lead lines in three years, removing up to 120 per day, Newark's water director Kareem Adeem told the Tribune.

  • "We've shown how to get this done, because we had the political will to do it," he said. "That's what every city needs: political will."

The big picture: Mayor Lori Lightfoot became Chicago's first leader to start removing lead from the city's water system, and Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson seems ready to accelerate the process.

  • In a March tweet, Johnson noted high levels of lead poisoning in Black and brown communities. "That ends with a Johnson administration," he wrote, "because water is life."

What's next: Hundreds of additional line replacements are expected this year as part of another 2023 provision requiring city workers to replace all lead lines in areas where new water mains are being installed.


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