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Lead Water Pipes Can Be Replaced For Free For Low-Income People As City Starts Process Of Removing Them

The city hopes two new programs can help homeowners get rid of lead service lines — but it will take years and billions to remove all of the pipes in Chicago.

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CHICAGO — The city will soon begin to help residents who want to get rid of lead water lines, with a focus on people who are low-income.

There are about 380,000 lead service lines in Chicago, many of them used by single-family and two-flat homes, according to the city. It will take years and cost an estimated $8.5 billion for all of those lines to be replaced — but the city’s new initiative will allow homeowners to kickstart the process and cut down on how much it will cost them.

“We need a start, and that is exactly what we are doing now,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at a Thursday news conference.

One of the new programs, called the Equity Lead Service Line Replacement Program, will allow eligible homeowners to get a full lead service line replacement paid for by the city. The line will be replaced from the water main to the home, and the city will install a water meter for free if the home does not have one.

To be eligible, applicants must own and reside in the home, have a household income below 80 percent of the area median income and have consistent lead concentrations above 15 parts per billion in their water as tested by the Department of Water Management.

The program needs to be agreed upon by City Council; if and once that happens, the city will start accepting applications this fall. Applications will be available online.

Deputy Water Commissioner Andrea Cheng said the program will change out an estimated 600 lines per year, and people who are interested can get started now by asking the city for a free water testing kit online.

Funding for that program will come from Community Development Block grants.

The other program is the Homeowner-Initiated Lead Service Line Replacement Program, which will help residents who own a home and want to hire a professional to remove lead service lines on their property.

The city will waive standard permit fees in those instances, which could save homeowners about $3,000, Lightfoot said. The city will also connect the new service line to the water main and install a free water meter at the homes.

To be eligible, homeowners must not ask for the fee waiver in conjunction with other projects, like a home renovation.

City Council will also have to approve this program. It’s expected to be voted upon in November and become effective Jan. 1.

The programs are simply Phase 1 of a multi-year process, Lightfoot said. Starting in 2021, the city will launch pilot projects to determine how much it’ll cost to create broader replacement programs.

How long it will take to replace all the city’s lead lines will depend on where and when the city can get funding, Lightfoot said. The city will try to get funding from the state and federal governments as it looks to expand the program and help more residents.

The water in Chicago is safe, Lightfoot and other officials emphasized, but the lead lines are a “legacy” issue that need to be addressed.

Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said children who have higher levels of lead in their blood are overwhelmingly found to have been exposed to lead through paint. That’s particularly a problem in older homes.

Still, the city tests the water of such children and does take action if the water is found to have higher levels of lead, Arwady said.

By focusing on paint, the city’s seen elevated lead levels among children drop from 25 percent in the ’90s to just 1-2 percent now, Arwady said. She said the city is excited to bring that down further by addressing potential lead exposure from water.

“The work today is such an important step as we continue to move forward as a city,” Arwady said.