Illinois shows leadership for lead-free drinking water; further action is needed across the Great Lakes region

August 27, 2021

By Anna-Lisa Castle, Water Policy Manager at the Alliance for the Great Lakes 


My Work. My Community
As a Water Policy Manager at the Alliance for the Great Lakes and as a resident of the McKinley Park neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side, I wear two hats.

I am a water policy professional working to develop and advance policy solutions to complex water infrastructure and governance challenges, like safely removing toxic lead drinking water pipes without burdening households already struggling with water affordability and quality challenges. This is especially urgent as there is no safe level of lead in water, which can cause irreparable harm to neurological development in children and myriad other health impacts to people of all ages.

I am also part of an environmental justice community – McKinely Park – of about 15,000 people, plurality Latino and Asian with majority low- and moderate-income households in older housing stock served by lead service lines. We have heavy truck traffic and industrial activity and our neighborhood has increasingly been targeted for development.

When the ground literally shakes under semis and bulldozers, I think about the lead pipes delivering drinking water to all of us. I wonder if the corrosion treatment lining those pipes has been compromised or if toxic lead particles have shaken loose, leaching into the water we drink, cook with, and bathe our children in. I wonder if my multilingual neighbors are able to access information or resources to protect themselves against lead contamination. And I wonder how lead in water factors into the layers of other stressors on my neighborhood, including industrial pollution, rising housing and utility costs, and, recently, the havoc wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic. The cumulative impact is something my neighbors and I are deeply concerned about and work to address as part of our local, community-based organization, Neighbors for Environmental Justice. 

Illinois Taking Steps to Eliminate Lead-Contaminated Drinking Water
Aging lead service lines represent an unnecessary public health liability even when they sit undisturbed and largely invisible to the public, connecting millions of households to water mains around the country. The problem is national in scope, with an estimated 10+ million lead service lines in use, not to mention millions more made of “unknown materials”. Taken together, the Great Lakes – which provide drinking water to 30+ million people in the U.S. – are home to 7 of the top 10 states with the highest number of lead service lines.

Illinois is at the top of that list, with Chicago the epicenter of this national crisis. The Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act (HB 3739) approved by the Illinois General Assembly earlier this year, is due for the governor’s signature within days. Illinois will become the second U.S. state to pass lead service line replacement legislation, following Michigan. Leaders at Metropolitan Planning Council, Illinois Environmental Council, Natural Resources Defense Council, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, and many others deserve a lot of credit in getting us here. Communities, water utilities, state agencies, and nonprofit partners will need to be diligent to ensure the law is implemented equitably.

Many states have required inventories to identify lead service lines, but more of our Great Lakes states should step up to support full replacement and safe, affordable, lead-free drinking water. Communities don’t have to wait for state legislation. We can look to cities like Cincinnati, Ohio, Madison, Wisconsin, and Denver, Colorado which has taken on full lead service line replacement with cost-sharing options or no cost to homeowners.

Congressional Action Needed
And Congress must step up, too. The Great Lakes Congressional delegation must continue to prioritize lead service line replacement in the federal infrastructure package and keep or increase proposed funding levels to address the multibillion-dollar backlog of drinking water infrastructure needs. According to the American Water Works Association, an estimated $1 trillion is needed to repair, replace, and expand drinking water systems over the next two decades. Water infrastructure funding must also include support for technical assistance to community water systems that most need it to develop robust, equitable lead service line replacement programs and strategies to engage the people they serve in that process.

US EPA Must Take Clear and Decisive Action
At the same time, the US Environmental Protection Agency must take a strong, science-backed, and health-based approach to revise and update the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR). A strong federal LCR is essential for driving action and setting a high bar for communities around the country, including my hometown of Chicago, where I have worked with valued colleagues on the city’s Lead Service Line Replacement Working Group. Even as US EPA continues to review and revise the LCR, the anticipated rule is already serving as an impetus for cities like Chicago to start on lead service line replacement and get ahead of federal action. Clear and decisive action by US EPA on the federal lead rule is needed to safeguard public health.

Looking to the Future
Safe, affordable, lead-free water is essential for everyone in the region, but too many are living without this basic water security. Public policy governing our drinking water must take a health-based, equity-driven approach that speeds up, not slows down, removal of toxins from our water. The Alliance looks forward to continuing to work with our partners, US EPA, and the Great Lakes Congressional delegation to ensure that communities have the tools they need to realize safe, clean affordable water for all.