BY MICHAEL PHILLIS AND CAMILLE FASSETT Published 11:36 PM CDT, July 8, 2023
Even though lead in drinking water damages children’s development, the Environmental Protection Agency has forced very few cities to replace their lead pipes.
Consider Chicago, with more water pipes made out of lead than any U.S. city, some 400,000. About 7% of homes that requested sampling last year exceeded federal limits, and in at least 73 homes, it was at least twice that much, according to an AP analysis of more than 3,500 samples collected using a method that’s more sensitive than the federal government’s.
Yet that many homes was never enough to trigger the mandate to remove pipes.
That’s because EPA standards only say most homes – not all – can’t have dangerous amounts of lead.
Since Chicago was never forced to remove its lead pipe, it left most of it in the ground, relying on water treatment instead to lower the lead levels.
State and local officials say they had limited funds that needed to be used elsewhere. They also say local rules made removal work more difficult and more expensive.
WATER MAIN WORK
In 2012, the city began rapidly replacing its aged water mains. These are typically made of cast-iron, not lead. When road crews came across the lead pipes that branch off and serve individual homes, they only replaced a short piece near the water main with copper. Thousands and thousands of times, they reburied the junction and left the rest.
Just as the city was wrapping up that effort, the Illinois legislature made that method illegal.
Miguel Del Toral, a former EPA regulations manager who was also a whistleblower on the Flint, Michigan lead pipe disaster, said Chicago ignored the toxic effects of lead in drinking water.
“During the water main replacement program, there was no acknowledgement that there was an issue,” he said.
Del Toral was not the only one to object to the city’s actions. Two Chicago residents filed a proposed class action in 2017, arguing Chicago’s water main work increased people’s risk of lead exposure. They cited studies that said disturbing lead pipe and then leaving it in the ground can actually spike levels in tap water.
The next year, to protect against those spikes, the city finally started handing out water filters to residents in neighborhoods where public works crews were replacing mains. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed.