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Illinois House backs replacement of brain-damaging lead service lines, but wants Biden and Congress to pay for the work

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 4/26/2021 Michael Hawthorne, Chicago Tribune
a close up of a stone wall: An old lead service line is removed from a home in Galesburg. Pipes known as service lines connect homes to municipal water supplies. Galesburg is planning to replace all its lead service lines by the end of the year. © Jose M. Osorio/Jose M. Osorio An old lead service line is removed from a home in Galesburg. Pipes known as service lines connect homes to municipal water supplies. Galesburg is planning to replace all its lead service lines by the end of the year.

Chicago would get more than three decades to replace toxic lead pipes under legislation that cleared an important hurdle Friday in Springfield.

The Illinois House approved the measure on a 76-31 vote after stripping out a small fee that would have raised $200 million a year to help finance the replacement of lead pipes known as service lines, which were installed throughout the state during the last century to convey water into single-family homes and two-flats.

State lawmakers are banking on Congress to follow through on President Joe Biden’s promise to earmark $45 billion to replace every lead service line in the nation. But states likely would be required to share the costs, similar to existing federal programs that help finance water and sewer improvements.

Lobbyists for public water systems and municipal governments opposed the proposed state fee on water bills. Based on typical water use by a family of four, the fee would have ranged from $1.20 to $5.40 a month depending on how a community’s median income compared with the statewide average.

Sponsoring Rep. Lamont J. Robinson Jr., D-Chicago, instead settled for an amendment that would require a new state advisory board to recommend other sources of funding.

“The time is now to finally tackle this problem,” Robinson told his colleagues. “Everyone should be able to drink clean water … no matter what financial capabilities you have or where you live in this state.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stress that lead is unsafe to consume at any level. More than 400,000 deaths a year in the U.S. are linked to the toxic metal. Even tiny concentrations can permanently damage the developing brains of children and contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney failure and other health problems later in life.

A recent Chicago Tribune analysis revealed that more than 8 of every 10 Illinoisans live in a community where lead was found in the tap water of at least one home during the past six years. Dozens of homes had hundreds and even thousands of parts per billion of lead in tap water — just as extreme as what researchers found during the same period in Flint, Michigan, where mismanagement of the public water system drew a world spotlight to a scourge that remained largely hidden for decades.

For years, Chicago denied it had a problem with lead in tap water, despite requiring use of the toxic metal to deliver water until Congress banned the practice in 1986. The first sign of change came last month, when Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched a small trial program to target the brain-damaging hazards in low-income neighborhoods.

City Hall is expected to pay for the replacement of just 650 of Chicago’s 400,000 lead service lines this year, according to the Chicago Department of Water Management.

Several Republican lawmakers said they opposed the bill because it failed to include a dedicated source of money to pay for replacements statewide.

“Without funding, you are making a promise to people you can’t fulfill,” said Rep. Steve Reick, R-Woodstock.

Robinson said the measure would put Illinois in position to take advantage of federal funding from Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan. Among other things, the state bill would set standards for labor practices, require a certain percentage of the work to be given to minority- and women-owned companies and eliminate legal questions about how lead pipes are replaced on private property.

“Today, Illinois took a step forward in our fight to end toxic, lead contaminated drinking water in communities across our state,” said Colleen Smith, deputy director of the nonprofit Illinois Environmental Council. “Lead service lines have posed a serious public health crisis for too long and it’s time for the legislature to finally pass a comprehensive strategy to protect Illinois children and families.”

mhawthorne@chicagotribune.com

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