Lead pipes: In Chicago, out of sight should not mean out of mind

Joint op-ed by Illinois Chapter Director Jack Darin and Rick Terven Jr, Legislative and Political Affairs Director for the Illinois Pipe Trades Association published in Crain’s Chicago Business August 23, 2016.
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Lead may be out of sight but it is not out of mind.
When we turn on the faucet, we expect that we’ll be drinking and using clean, safe water. As we’ve seen in Crain's LogoFlint, Mich., and in cities around the country—including Chicago, Highland Park,Galesburg and probably many others—that isn’t always the case. There is lead in the water of many cities, schools and homes. And it is something we need to solve now, not later.
There are over 1,700 community water systems in our state overseen by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. They serve more than 11.9 million residents. While the agency says 96.5 percent of these community drinking water systems are in full compliance with all health requirements, it also reports that “there are still more than 400,000 people in Illinois at health risk due to aging infrastructure.”

 

One of the hurdles to addressing this problem is that there isn’t nearly enough data. We can’t get the lead out of our water supply until we know where the lead is. And in many cases, we don’t. Communities may not even know they have a problem, much less where the lead pipes actually are in their systems. Under our streets and in buildings, these pipes are often hidden from view—out of sight, out of mind—but they pose a real threat to our safety. It’s long past time for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in and update its Lead and Copper Rule to make sure Americans know whether the pipes below them present a danger. We need a national inventory of these pipes—like we have for the natural gas pipes under our feet—and we need it now.

 

There’s an effort underway in Springfield to find these pipes and other infrastructure that needs to be modernized or replaced. The Illinois Senate has approved Senate Bill 550—a step forward in the fight for clean, safe water. This bill will also protect schoolchildren from lead poisoning by requiring testing of all drinking fountains and other sources of drinking water in our schools. We applaud state Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, and state Rep. Sonya Harper, D-Chicago, for sponsoring this proposal and urge the Illinois House and governor to quickly enact it into law. These are strong first steps, and combined with action from local, state and federal leaders, it will begin to help Illinois reduce the potential of lead exposure in our water.

Another example of action is happening in Galesburg. The city received a $4 million state grant to cover the cost of replacing approximately 2,000 lead service lines, which is nearly half its total lead lines. The principal of that loan will be forgiven, leaving the city to only pay the interest. This is exactly the type of program into which our state should be investing. Cities won’t be able to do this alone; we have to come together as a state and do the right thing by our children and grandchildren.

At the federal level, there are continued attempts to secure funding for Flint and other cities that are facing lead problems. Aside from congressional action, however, labor and environmental organizations are urging the U.S. EPA to update the Lead and Copper Rule with the requirement of a national inventory of pipe materials and to provide communities with more education on the dangers of lead in our water.

There are other benefits to taking action beyond making sure that our children are protected from the dangers of lead. Good middle-class jobs can be created and sustained cleaning up this mess. A recent report from the University of Illinois found that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District that serves greater Chicago boosted the regional economy by $1.27 billion and created over 13,000 jobs in 2014. Increasing that investment also increases both the economic impact and the jobs impact.

With a concerted effort, we can face and overcome this problem. In doing so, we will both protect communities and grow quality, family-supporting jobs here in Illinois and around the country.

Jack Darin is the chapter director of the Illinois Sierra Club. Rick Terven Jr. is the legislative and political affairs director of the Illinois Pipe Trades Association, a collaboration of 19 local unions and 1,500 union contractors in Illinois, Iowa and Indiana.
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