Nov 13, 2023 - News

Feds loan Chicago $336 million to remove toxic lead lines

A water contractor wearing a neon vest and a hard hat strikes a lead line with a pick.

A water contractor fixes a leaking lead service pipe ahead of service line replacement in Chicago. Photo: Antonio Pere/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The Biden administration loaned Chicago $336 million this month to remove a fraction of the city's 400,000 toxic lead service lines that connect homes to the water main.

Why it matters: Health authorities warn that no level of lead exposure is safe, and an Axios analysis shows that more than 80% of Chicago homes tested from spring 2018 to 2022 had some lead in their drinking water.

How it works: The loan, matched by municipal funds, is aimed at helping the city fulfill its new responsibility to replace lead lines whenever they are damaged or when new mains and sewers are installed on a block.

  • The funds are expected to cover replacing about 30,000 lead lines over three years.
  • That would mark a significant acceleration in a city that has replaced fewer than 3,800 lines over the past three years, according to the Tribune.

What they're saying: Gov. JB Pritzker called the loan an "investment that won't just deliver reliable, clean water to thousands of households, but will also create 2,700 jobs for our first-rate workforce."

Catch up quick: Chicago required the installation of lead lines in all single-family homes and small apartments until 1986, when they were banned nationally.

  • Under former Mayors Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot, the city replaced more than 700 miles of water mains attached to lead lines. But instead of replacing the toxic pipes while the streets were dug up, the city reconnected them to the water system and buried them.

The intrigue: A new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that replacing all lead lines in Illinois would save the state $89 billion over 35 years in health care costs for cardiovascular disease, cancer, ADHD, short-term cognitive damage, reproductive impacts and more.

What we're watching: Under current law, the city has more than 50 years to remove its lead lines, but a group of environmental advocates are pushing to accelerate the timeline to 10 years as part of new federal rules expected to be updated in 2024.

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