Lightfoot’s plan to replace Chicago’s lead water pipes has switched out 280 of an estimated 390,000 service lines


Angela McGhee has never trusted the tap water that flows from the faucets of her more than 100-year-old house.

The 50-year-old Chatham resident gets her drinking water from store-bought bottles because she suspected her tap water might contain high levels of brain-damaging lead.

Last year, McGhee decided to look into a City of Chicago program that would pay for the replacement of mainline utility lines for low-income residents. A number of his friends and neighbors are suspicious of the scheme, McGhee said, but she has moved on. In August, its lead line was replaced with copper pipe.

“If we don’t have our health, we have nothing else,” she said.

McGhee, who lives with her husband, is one of only 280 Chicago homeowners who have had a major utility line — the connecting pipe between a home and the water main — replaced under city-sponsored programs in the last two years.

That’s 280 of an estimated 390,000 lead service lines, the most leaded water lines in any city in the United States.

Lead service lines were still being installed in Chicago as late as 1986, even though the detrimental health effects of the metal were well known by that time.

Now, starting in January, the city will be required by state law to replace lead utility pipes whenever there is a break or leak in a water line. This will force the city to replace what it estimates will be at least 4,000 lead lines a year, perhaps 5,000.

All city residents with a break or leak in a water utility line should call 311.

The new law means Chicago will finally begin to see more progress in replacing main lines.

To pay for much of the program, city officials say they will close soon on a low-interest loan from the US Environmental Protection Agency for $336 million over five years.

Lead exposure is a critically important public health problem. The metal can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, putting people, especially children, who drink contaminated water at risk. Pediatricians and health advocates say there are no safe levels of lead.

Although lead has been detected in water in homes throughout the city, Chicago complies with federal law. The EPA has set a level of 15 parts per billion as the maximum for drinking water from public utilities.

Two years ago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a relatively small pilot program that would begin 600 main service line replacements paid by Council for residents who qualified based on income and other requirements.

While most of the replaced guidelines in Chicago were removed through the stock program in which McGhee took part, the number fell well short of the city’s goal. There were only 225 participants in the stock program.

Other replacements were made through add-on programs, including one paid for entirely by homeowners.

contractors move machinery
On the South Side, contractors are moving equipment used for drilling underground as part of a new method to replace lead utility lines. Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun Times

Lightfoot gets credit for being the first mayor of Chicago to promise a solution to what has been a long-standing problem. But he has also drawn criticism for missing the target of the pilot program and for moving slowly over the lead pipe replacements.

Chicago Department of Water Commissioner Andrea Cheng, a civil engineer who has the chemical symbol for water tattooed on her right wrist, is faced with the task of fixing the lead pipe problem.

The water department has about 2,000 employees and plans to hire more than 300 for jobs related to lead pipe replacement. Jobs include street crews, relief workers and others. The replacements will largely be carried out by city crews, but some work will be handled by contractors.

“It’s frustrating when I hear people say we’re doing it slowly,” said Cheng. “The reality is, they don’t know how hard we had to work to get to the point of making any.”

Cheng said the city has struggled to get people through a lengthy application process, but that the pilot has taught his department how to improve the process. He said he hopes to meet Lightfoot’s original goal next year to replace 600 guidelines with $15 million in annual funding from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Individuals wishing to apply for lead pipes to be replaced can do so online at

As part of another effort, City obtained a $4 million forgivable loan in July from state environmental officials, which funnel federal tax dollars to cities. That money will be used to pay for the replacement of lead lines at daycare centers. Cheng is targeting 120 such replacements next year.

In addition to these programs, officials hope to remove lead lines as complete replacements of water or sewer lines are made. It’s unclear how many homeowners will benefit. A pilot program in Little Village has been delayed for months.

Under state law, Chicago has 50 years to replace its guidelines. But the clock on that deadline doesn’t start ticking until 2027.

The current plan for replacements in Chicago doesn’t have enough money to pay them all, a bill that will run into billions of dollars.

Raising water bills seems to be out of the question for now. Cheng said the city can continue to borrow money, although he hopes there will be more federal money.

Under the bipartisan federal infrastructure act, the state received $107 million for all of Illinois. Chicago will need more.

Erik Olson, senior strategic director of public health for the Natural Resources Defense Privy Council, is among the critics of the EPA’s allowable thresholds for lead levels in water and also of Chicago’s slow pace of replacing lead lines. lead.

“We welcome the fact that the city is talking about taking this issue more seriously,” Olson said. “The problem is, this city has the biggest trunk line problem in the country.”

Other cities, including Newark, New Jersey, did better, Olson said. Newark replaced 23,000 in less than three years. A lawsuit filed by Olson’s organization kickstarted this effort.

Cheng said when dangerous lead levels are detected, the city has a process to address the problem immediately, and protective filters have been provided to tens of thousands of Chicagoans.

He said other initiatives are also underway, including a streamlining of the home testing process.

Willie Brickhouse, 65, who owns a South Side home with a recently replaced lead line, said he was concerned about the health effects of lead. Retired for a decade, he applied last year and qualified.

Willie Brickhouse sits in the chair at his home
Willie Brickhouse talks about his decision to replace the water pipes at his home on Wednesday, November 30, 2022. Willie Brickhouse used the city’s program to have his water pipes replaced after tests revealed he had higher levels of lead in the water. Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun Times

On a cold recent morning, a team of about a half-dozen contract workers from the city just outside the Brickhouse home dug a hole in the concrete to lower a machine to dig under and across the street in its basement to replace a lead service line.

The workers used a trenchless technique, new to Chicago, which involves demolishing smaller portions of a street and sidewalk to dig underground and reach the basement of a home to replace lead pipes. It is cheaper because it requires less excavation and less subsequent restoration.

This could be the key to reducing the city’s estimated cost by as much as $30,000 per replaced mainline and making more replacements possible.

In Newark, the pipes are replaced at a cost of $5,000 to $10,000 each.

In a hearing in Chicago last April, US Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois asked Cheng why Chicago’s cost estimates are at least three times higher, on average, than any other city.

Cheng said there are complexities with the city’s underground infrastructure, and more importantly, trenchless technology wasn’t allowed by the state until a waiver was granted earlier this year.

“This can be done and it can be done quickly,” Duckworth said in an interview. “But we’re going to have to put on our big-boy pants and make some key decisions about how to proceed.

“There has to be willpower behind it,” Duckworth said. “I’m going to keep asking those tough questions, pushing and prodding everyone involved and saying: We have to do this.”

construction worker replacing lead service lines
Boring machinery is being used to replace lead service lines on the south side. Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun Times

Brett Chase’s environmental and public health reporting is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.


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Written by Natalia Chi

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