Activists Rally for the Removal of lead pipes in Chicago and strong EPA rules: ‘It’s a harsh reality we’re facing daily’

When Sukky Bleck’s infant son was diagnosed last year with bilateral hydronephrosis, a condition preventing urine from draining from the kidney into the bladder, she started questioning herself. [Chicago Tribune]

“Was it something I did? What did I do wrong? How can I fix it,” the 27-year-old Southeast Side resident said.

Bleck said she soon became haunted by whether lead-contaminated drinking water might have contributed to his condition. While kidney damage from lead exposure is uncommon in the United States, according to the National Kidney Foundation, lead found in drinking water has been proven to cause kidney damage on rare occasions, usually after many years of exposure.

“I shouldn’t have to stockpile cases of water for my children’s home. No parent should,” she said. “The lead pipe crisis is not just a statistic. It’s a harsh reality we’re facing daily. Our children, our future are at risk.”

Bleck joined about 50 other environmental activists, teachers and politicians at a rally Wednesday afternoon in Daley Plaza, calling for the removal of lead pipes in Chicago and a robust Lead and Copper Rule Improvements policy from the Environmental Protection Agency, which will likely be released later this month.

A decade into the work, Chicago is finally taking out toxic lead pipes when it replaces water mains ]

Activists carried signs saying “Let’s get the lead out, Chicago” and chanted “these lead pipes have got to go.” One person dressed in a toxic lead pipe costume, featuring a bright orange and yellow danger sign.

“This rule can potentially help us get the lead lines out faster and more equitably. And this means that we can help put our front-line communities at the front of the line to get their lead pipes out and get safe, clean drinking water,” said Angela Guyadeen, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’ Safe Water Initiative.

Debra Shore, regional administrator for the EPA’s office in Chicago, said the new lead rule would prioritize proactive lead service line replacement, strengthen compliance tap sampling and reduce complexity of the regulation.

Utility groups estimate that Illinois leads the country with roughly 400,000 lead service lines, connecting homes and two-flats to municipal water systems. Chicago’s plumbing code required using the toxic metal until 1986, decades after most other major U.S. cities banned it. A 2018 Chicago Tribune analysis found that lead in tap water is a danger throughout Illinois, and that more than 80% of Illinoisans live in a community where lead was detected during the previous six years.

Brain-damaging lead found in tap water from most Illinois communities during the past 6 years, Tribune analysis finds ]

Angela Tovar, the city’s chief sustainability officer, said Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration is committed to removing lead pipes so Chicagoans can “drink water from the tap without worry.” She also called for more federal funding to support getting rid of lead service lines, a process she said would create jobs.

“We know that lead disproportionately impacts Black and brown communities,” she said. “We need to do better; we need to expand on the programs that we have as a city.”

President Joe Biden’s administration released a plan in 2021 to remove the nation’s 9.2 million lead pipes within 10 years, setting aside $15 billion from the infrastructure law to replace them. Illinois received about $230 million from that program this year. The city is borrowing another $336 million through a low-interest federal loan program for water projects.

“We need more though,” said Ram Villivalam, a democratic state senator representing the Northwest Side and northwest suburbs.

Villivalam said when his son was 3-years-old he experienced high lead levels, something he called a “heartbreaking moment.” Ingesting even tiny concentrations of lead can permanently damage the developing brains of children and contribute to heart disease, kidney failure and other health problems later in life.

“We cannot have our youth having their global development in jeopardy by having lead service lines in our city, in our county, in our state,” he said. “I’m going to work with you all at the state level to do whatever it takes to get the funding we need to replace these lead service lines and do it faster than we put forth before.”

At the rally, Samuel Corona, an organizer with the justice collective Bridges//Puentes, held up a bottle which he said contained tap water from a home on the Southeast Side with 1,100 ppb of lead — about 73 times the EPA’s action level of 15 ppb.

“This is what our kids are possibly brushing their teeth, drinking water or anything like that,” Corona said.

“My community is tired,” he added. “All we’re asking for are three basic rights. The right to clean water to drink, clean air to breathe, clean soil to plant our roots and let our families grow.”