Dec 4, 2023 - News

Chicago left out of EPA's new lead action plan

Photo of a lead pipe next to a glass of water
Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

New federal rules aimed at getting lead out of the nation's water could vastly improve water safety in most of the country — but not in Chicago.

What's happening: Health advocates had been pushing for a rule that would shorten Chicago's timeline to remove 400,000 toxic lead water lines to just 10 years.

  • The Environmental Protection Agency's new proposal shortens the timeline to within the next decade for most U.S. cities, but gives Chicago 40-50 years to address its lead lines — not much different from the city's current situation.

Why it matters: Health authorities say no level of ingested lead is safe, and a 2022 Axios analysis found that more than a third of Chicago homes tested showed high levels of lead in their water.

By the numbers: Over the last three years, Chicago has removed only about 3,800 lines.

What they're saying: A top EPA official, Radhika Fox, defended the long timeline to the Sun-Times, saying the process requires "practical implementation."

  • Fox also touted a new lower lead "action level" from (from 15 parts per billion to 10 ppb) that would trigger accelerated removal and public notification. "I would not say this is status quo."

The other side: Forty years means "that at least two more generations of children will continue to be exposed to the risk of drinking contaminated water and bearing the health and behavioral consequences of it," Brenda Santoyo of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) said at a press conference Friday.

Environmental advocates praised the EPA for shortening the removal timeline for most cities but took issue with other aspects of the proposed rule, including:

  • Very limited testing for lead in school water.
  • A 10 ppb action level instead of the advocates' preferred 5 ppb, which is the limit for bottled water.

Zoom in: 10 ppb "is still 10 times as much lead as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends as the limit for schools," noted John Rumpler from Environment America.

Between the lines: The proposal doesn't require utilities to pay for lead line removal — instead placing much of the burden on homeowners.

  • EPA officials say they don't have the legal authority to force utilities to pay. But environmental advocates disagree.
  • "If the residents could afford pipe replacement, it would have already happened. Now is the time to make clear that environmental justice communities are not saddled with significant costs or loans that can never be repaid with service line replacements," Abre' Conner of the NAACP said Friday.

Yes, but: EPA officials note that some replacements can be covered by $15 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and federal loans like the $336 million Chicago recently borrowed.

What's next: The EPA will accept public comments on the proposal for two months and hold a public hearing on Jan. 16, before finalizing rules next year.

  • Both LVEJO and the Illinois Environmental Council will be submitting comments and urging the "EPA to reconsider the timeline that they have for Chicago," Santoyo says.
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