In major step, Chicago announces lead pipe replacement plan – but could it widen the equity gap?

Lindsay McCormick, Program Manager

In September, Chicago took an important – albeit modest – step towards tackling its colossal number of lead service lines (LSLs) – the lead pipes providing drinking water from the main under the street to homes.

With an estimated 389,900 LSLs, Chicago has more than two times as many LSLs as any other city in the country. In fact, Chicago city code mandated their installation until 1986, when Congress banned it.  Since then, the city has largely turned a blind eye to the problem of existing lead pipes – that is, until now.

On September 10th, Mayor Lightfoot announced the city’s new Lead Service Line Replacement Program, acknowledging the problem and taking initial steps towards fully replacing its lead pipes.  While the starting investment is $19 million, Lightfoot estimates the full cost of the program, including restoration and bringing underground sewerage and water infrastructure up to code, at $8.5 billion. The city currently does not yet have the funds – or a plan – to fully cover the cost. Chicago’s move comes just weeks before the Environmental Protection Agency is slated to release its final revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule. 

Chicago’s plan

Chicago’s plan consists of three elements:

  • The Equity LSL Replacement Program, providing full LSL replacement for eligible low-income residents (below 80% of the area median income). The program will be paid for by up to $15 million in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds in 2021.
  • The Homeowner-Initiated LSL Replacement Program, under which the city will waive current permitting fees, connect the new service line to the water main, and install a free water meter for homeowners who independently hire a contractor to replace the full line. The homeowner would be responsible for the cost of replacement of the entire line – including that on public property.
  • A Block-Level Water Main pilot program, where the city will conduct full LSL replacement as part of a main replacement in a single city block in a low- to moderate-income area with a variety of building types.

Opportunities for improvement

Replacement of a lead service line at a Chicago residence.

The plan, while an important start, falls short of what many other communities across the country are offering to their residents to reduce barriers – such as cost and logistical challenges – to equitable LSL replacement. The city also has not yet committed to a goal of ultimately replacing all of its LSLs, unlike more than 100 communities and three states.

The eligibility requirements for Chicago’s Equity LSL Replacement Program, in particular, raise potential concerns:

  • Residents will only be eligible to participate if they both own and reside in the home. This may in fact exacerbate equity issues given that landlords will not be eligible to replace LSLs for low-income renters.  Low-income renters and renters of color, who already bear the brunt of lead poisoning from paint, may be the last to benefit – thus widening the equity gap. Chicago Water indicates that owner-occupation is a requirement of the CDBG funds that are providing essential resources for the program.
  • Homes will be selected based on “consistent lead concentrations above 15 ppb in their water, as tested by the Department of Water Management.” With so many LSLs in Chicago, careful prioritization will be critical. However, Chicago Water’s decision to rely on “consistent” lead in water testing results as an eligibility requirement is questionable, given that sampling is likely to miss the unpredictable releases of lead particulate from LSLs.  Chicago should instead consider an approach such as Denver Water’s, which prioritizes replacement based on factors such as odds of lead poisoning and presence of susceptible populations like children.

Chicago should also fund public side replacement through the Homeowner-Initiated LSL Replacement Program, which is common practice for homeowner-initiated programs.  Without doing so, participating in this program is unlikely to be financially viable for the vast majority of Chicagoans. As Chicago Water notes,[1] this will soon be required under the final Lead and Copper Rule revisions anticipated later this month.

The city estimates cost per replacement at $15,000-$26,000, depending on the program.[2]  That is a steep cost that will not only limit the ability of homeowners to participate, but will also limit the overall number of replacements with the available resources.  In contrast, EPA estimates a cost range of $1,882-$5,645 per line for planned replacement across the country.[3]  Overtime, Chicago should reduce its cost per replacement as it gains experience and efficiencies.

The plan also fails to prioritize replacing LSLs at child care facilities – where many young children spend a large portion of their day. Under Illinois law, child care facilities are required to test for lead in drinking water and reduce levels to below 2 ppb.  Many facilities, including those with LSLs, are struggling to reach the state mandate and are relying on interim solutions (e.g., filters) due to the high cost of LSL replacement.  Chicago should support child care facilities in replacing LSLs, prioritizing those with the greatest financial need.

What’s next?

Lightfoot’s announcement promises that this is just Phase I of a more comprehensive plan.  Phase II will integrate LSL replacement alongside water or sewer main replacements – “encouraging” homeowners to replace the private side simultaneously.  This approach is relatively common across the country – but fraught with problems – as it facilitates replacement for those with means and worsens the situation for those without, thus exacerbating inequities in LSL replacement.

In a recent study, American University and EDF found that a similar program conducted in Washington, DC from 2008-2019 led to higher rates of “partial” LSL replacement – which can significantly increase short-term lead in water levels and fail to provide the long-term benefits of a full replacement – in low income and predominantly Black areas of the city.

Moving into Phase II, Chicago should consider options to limit partial LSL replacement and facilitate participation in full LSL replacement by all Chicagoans.  This should include tapping into federal and state resources, as the available city funds are insufficient to get the job done.

[1] See slide 16 of City of Chicago presentation:

[2] Id. at slide 9.

[3] See Exhibit 5-11 of EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule Economic Analysis:

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