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Chicago's Upgrades To Aging Water Lines May Disturb Lead Pipes

Chicago's North Broadway Street is always bustling, but in the past few weeks, it has been noisier than ever. There is water flowing from an open fire hydrant, and as traffic inches by, a cement truck backs up and pours concrete down into a big hole in the street.

"Well, we always say there's two seasons: either winter and construction," says Maureen Martino, the executive director of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce. This water main upgrade is only the beginning; Martino says the city has plenty more scheduled for the area this year.

"When we took a look at the water mains, what they pulled out, this week over on Broadway and see how old they look, and how crumbling and what the new water mains look like, you'll see the need is there," Martino says.

It's part of the city's sweeping plan to update and replace miles of the city's aging water lines that was announced four years ago. But while there has been praise about the long-overdue new infrastructure, there has also been criticism — and a lawsuit from residents who say the work is causing unsafe lead levels in the city's drinking water.

Chicago has more than 4,000 miles of water mains under city streets. In 2012, the city announced a 10-year plan to replace 900 miles of water pipes. The mains are not made of lead, but nearly 80 percent of the water lines that connect up to the water mains and bring water into homes and businesses are lead pipes — and that's the problem, says attorney Steve Berman.

Berman filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of three Chicago residents who say the city's process of replacing water mains actually disturbs the lead service lines and increases the amount of lead in the drinking water. He says the city failed to warn residents or to tell them how to reduce the risk of lead contamination from their taps.

"So we have children drinking lead in the water in Chicago — that's not acceptable," he says. "So we seek to have proper warnings sent out in the future when this is done, to have testing of kids to see if they have elevated lead levels, and to have the city of Chicago replace these lead pipes with nonlead pipes."

A study was published in 2013 by the EPA and Chicago's Department of Water Management that aimed to figure out better ways to determine the lead levels in the city's drinking water.

The EPA's Miguel Del Toral says while Chicago's overall water quality is good, what the study made clear is that the method or sampling protocol that's used to measure the amount of lead in drinking water is not effective.

"Our sampling protocol is not really capturing the high lead that's there," he says. "Everywhere, not just in Chicago. It's a national issue."

Del Toral, who was among the first at the EPA to raise concerns about the water crisis in Flint, says disturbing lead pipes can cause lead levels to spike. But it depends on how severely the pipe is shaken and how much of the pipe's protective coating is knocked off.

Chicago recently announced that it will resume a water testing program at homes in some neighborhoods where children have tested positive for elevated blood lead levels. In an interview with WFLD-Fox TV in Chicago, Tom Powers, the city's outgoing commissioner of water management, says Chicago water is safe.

"Water meets and exceeds every standard of the U.S. EPA," Powers says. "We've done testing in areas where water main work has been done, and we have not seen any correlation to any increases in lead levels as a result of any of that work."

Powers says the water department adds phosphate to the water supply to mitigate lead leaching, but anyone can call the city to arrange free testing for lead. Del Toral says that's a good step, but the country needs to have a conversation about what it would take to eliminate all lead pipes.

In a city like Chicago, where the use of lead pipes is nearly universal, that would take a very long time.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.
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