Aldermen Consider $2 Billion Plan to Get Lead Out of City Water

It’s a problem that has ramifications for public health, real estate – and possibly even violence.

City Council members on Monday debated a proposal to institute a new tax to help solve the problem of lead in Chicago residents’ water pipes. It could affect as many as 375,000 properties in Chicago.

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Lead service lines deliver water to individual homes from main lines that run beneath city streets. Lead is a dangerous toxin for which there is no universally safe level in drinking water. The city maintains it does routine testing and puts a chemical in the water to make sure there is no lead runoff from these pipes. But even former Water Department Commissioner Thomas Powers has admitted to “Chicago Tonight” that the safest solution would be to replace those lead service lines. And that could cost a homeowner between $15,000 and $20,000.

Who should foot the bill? That was part of the debate Monday at City Council, where a committee is proposing a 1-percent tax on real estate sales of $750,000 and up to pay for the estimated $2 billion it would cost to replace those lines. The ordinance’s sponsor, Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward, says it’s the most fair way to raise enough money to solve the problem.

“You’re only going to see that once, when you transfer that real estate,” Villegas said. “It is responsible for the seller to make sure the buyer has a home that’s safe for his family. So this would serve as a vehicle to help remove the lead lines.”

There is a legal debate over whether the city or an individual homeowner is responsible for the cost of replacing service lines. Any city ordinance that makes a homeowner spend $15,000-$20,000 will surely be unpopular. But until 1986, the city mandated that all service lines be lead, so many aldermen feel it would be unfair for individuals to foot the bill to change something the city made them do in the first place. The Chicago Association of Realtors warns the tax could tank the real estate market – and that a better way to pay for these needed upgrades would be to tack an extra fee onto everyone’s water bill – not charge 1 percent on a home sale of $750,000 or more.

“That’s a $7,500 tax, for the benefit of you leaving Chicago. That’s outrageous,” said the association’s Government Affairs Director Brian Bernardoni. “The water bill is something that everyone gets. You attach that fee, amortize it over a longer period of time so everyone’s not getting hit hard. But at least you know there’s a fund and that fund is being used to deal with lead remediation.”

Any new water and sewer fees would be fraught as well. Those fees have gone up in recent years as the mayor has sought to pay for the replacement of nearly 1,000 miles of old water mains in the city. Coincidentally, when those replacements occur, it increases the risk of lead seeping into the service lines.

Also, water and sewer fees are on the rise to help shore up some of the city’s pension funds.

There was also testimony at Monday’s hearing that there is a direct connection between lead exposure, especially early in life, and criminal activity. Why? It can stunt a person’s emotional development, it can hurt IQ and it can cause aggression. Some aldermen bought into the notion that lead pipes and crime in Chicago have a correlation.

“Lead in the system can lead to aggression, and lead once it’s in the system doesn’t come out,” said Ald. Harry Osterman, 48th Ward. “So someone who’s lead poisoned at (age) 1, that affects their brain through their lifetime. If you look at Chicago and where we are with violence, I think that’s something we have to take into consideration.”

The ordinance’s sponsors say they’re open to other funding sources, including lobbying to having water line replacement be part of a capital bill from Springfield.

Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz

Related stories:

UIC Professor Developing Finger-Prick Blood Test for Toxic Metals

Report Examines Lead in Water at Chicago Child Care Facilities

New Report Reveals Presence of Lead in Many Chicago Homes

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