MPC's Justin Williams discusses the support Illinois utilities need to replace all their lead service lines, a topic he spoke about at a recent US Senate committee hearing.
In 2021, two major things happened in the fight for lead-free drinking water. Illinois adopted a law requiring every community in the state to find and replace their lead service lines. Nearly simultaneously, Congress passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, dedicating $15 billion nationally to replace lead service lines.
Now states, including Illinois, need to plan for full lead service line replacement. On April 21, 2022, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth hosted a Senate Committee hearing on this topic (click for full video), at which I testified alongside Director John Kim of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Commissioner Andrea Cheng of the Chicago Department of Water Management, and Anthena Gore, Water Program Strategist at Elevate.
My testimony focused on the issue driving MPC’s ongoing work on lead service line replacement: the support Illinois communities will need to ensure full, equitable replacement of lead service lines. Read on for more details.
Cost estimates for lead service line replacement vary widely. At USEPA’s high-average cost of $7,056 per full replacement, it would cost more than $4.7 billion to replace all of Illinois’ known lead service lines in the coming decades. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is a huge achievement, delivering an estimated $565.5 million to Illinois based on current State Revolving Fund allotment levels. Yet that investment represents just over 12 percent of the funding needed in Illinois. All levels of government will need to find ways to fill that funding gap. For example:
- The federal government needs to quickly update how State Revolving Fund dollars—which support water infrastructure improvements—are allocated so they can better align future-year funding distributions with states’ lead service line burdens. This will bring more funding to heavily lead burdened states like Illinois.
- The State of Illinois needs to explore all funding options to supplement federal funding and support low-income communities. The appointees to the State Lead Service Line Replacement Advisory Board (I’m a member) will explore these options in the months ahead.
- Local units of government can help bring down costs where possible by coordinating lead service line replacement with other infrastructure repairs and by working with their neighbors to find purchasing and planning efficiencies.
Prioritize grant funding to low income, lead-burdened communities.
Second, until full funding of lead service line replacement is reached, all lead service line replacement grant funding needs to be prioritized for communities with the highest need. People should never have to choose between lead-free drinking water and affordable drinking water; everyone should be assured both. The best way to achieve this outcome is for low-income individuals and utilities that serve low-income communities to receive grant funding that covers the full cost of lead service line replacement. And because Black and Latinx Illinoisans are twice as likely as white Illinoisans to live in the communities that contain nearly all this known toxic infrastructure, racial equity needs to be at the forefront of funding prioritization.
Prioritizing funding will require transparent, equitable criteria to guide distribution. Those criteria need to focus on lead service line burden, resident ability to pay for replacement, and vulnerability to lead exposure. MPC and our partners are working with Illinois EPA to identify indicators that will ensure federal funding is distributed with equity as the guiding principle.
Finally, Illinois communities will need technical support. Utilities in Illinois vary widely in their ability to tackle the different aspects of lead service line replacement, including community engagement, finding lead service lines, planning, and construction. There needs to be assistance available for staff-constrained and resource-constrained utilities to meet their replacement targets. Communities urgently need help to take advantage of federal funding, which can be impossibly complex to apply for, especially for resource-constrained utilities.
It’s vital that the State of Illinois dedicate staff and programming to help its communities navigate every stage of the federal funding process, from identifying an appropriate funding source to completing applications and reporting requirements. The State should use a “set aside” portion of federal lead service line replacement funding to provide that support to communities.
As MPC continues to advocate for equitable lead service line replacement in Illinois, our focus is on ensuring sustainable, sufficient, and equitable revenue streams are prioritized for the most lead-burdened communities, and that support is available to enable those communities to access funding and get the job done.
Thank you to Sen. Duckworth for her continued, tireless leadership on this issue. Thanks also to my fantastic co-presenters for their insights on the imperative to engage community members in this work and the progress being made at the City of Chicago and State of Illinois. Read my full testimony here.