Infrastructure Bill Poised to Fund Chicago’s Push to Remove Lead Pipes

Video: Joe Schwieterman, Kevin Artl and Larry Bullock join “Chicago Tonight” to discuss what the federal infrastructure bill could mean for Illinois. (Produced by Blair Paddock)

The $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan that advanced Tuesday with a 69-30 vote in the U.S. Senate includes $15 billion to replace the lead service lines responsible for contaminating the tap water in approximately 10 million homes across the country.

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

However, President Joe Biden originally asked lawmakers to earmark $45 billion to fund the replacement of all of the lead service lines in the nation, estimated to be between 9.7 million and 12.8 million by the National Resources Defense Council.

While the infrastructure plan approved Tuesday by the Senate includes a total of $55 billion to improve the country’s water infrastructure to ensure universal access to clean drinking water, the amount set aside for lead service line replacement projects was slashed by two-thirds during negotiations designed to win the support of enough Republican senators to pass the 60-vote threshold needed to break a filibuster.

Approximately 400,000 Chicago homes are linked by lead service lines to the city’s water mains buried under city streets, the most of any American city. The metal can leach a brain-damaging chemical into drinking water.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called the bill that advanced Tuesday “historic” and said it represented the largest investment in clean water in the history of the United States in a statement to WTTW News.

“Our outdated, decaying water infrastructure is threatening our children’s health and in turn, threatening our nation’s future,” Durbin said. “When it comes to protecting our children’s health and well-being, solutions cannot wait and the federal government must assist states.”  

Chicago officials required that lead pipes be used to funnel water to single-family homes and small apartment buildings for nearly a century. Federal law banned the use of lead pipes in 1986, when it was discovered that they could cause brain-damaging toxins to leach into the water.

The bipartisan legislation now heads to the U.S. House for approval, where Democratic leaders have vowed to consider it at the same time as a $3.5 trillion package that the Senate is likely to pass with only Democratic votes.

Democratic leaders are weighing whether to include additional funding for lead service line removal projects in the second bill, which has yet to be finalized, sources told WTTW News.

In September 2020, Mayor Lightfoot laid out a plan to replace all of those lead service lines, but acknowledged that the city could not afford the $8.5 billion cost. City officials estimate that it will cost $15,000 to $26,000 to remove lead service lines from each home or two-flat in Chicago.

But the city has yet to replace a single lead service line in the 11 months that has elapsed since Lightfoot’s announcement, officials said.

Lightfoot’s plan called for lead service lines from 600 homes with high levels of lead in the drinking water in low-income neighborhoods to be removed with $15 million in federal grants.

However, that program only began accepting applications in March, and only 100 households had applied by June when it was limited to households that earn less than 80% of the area’s median income, or $74,550 annually for a family of four, whose tap water in their single-family home two-flat has more than 15 parts per billion of lead.

In July, city officials announced that they would expand the pool of Chicagoans who are eligible for the program to families with children younger than 18 who meet the income eligibility requirements regardless of whether their water had high levels of lead.

There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, according to federal officials.

Lightfoot’s plan also envisioned removing as many lead service lines as possible when city crews replace or repair the water mains under the street in front of homes, in an effort to minimize the disruption caused by the construction and save money.

A pilot program of 50 homes was to take place in 2021, Lightfoot said. However, only “community outreach and education for the pilot has started but excavation has not yet begun,” officials said in June.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

Note: This story was originally published Aug. 10. It has been updated to include our “Chicago Tonight” video. 

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors