Here's how proposed changes to a 30-year-old federal regulation on lead would hurt Illinois, the state with more lead service lines than any other—and how a statewide replacement program could make us a national leader
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) established the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) in 1991 “to protect public health and reduce exposure to lead in drinking water.” Nearly 30 years later—during which time we’ve learned more about the hazards of lead in our drinking water, including, unfortunately, through crises such as in Flint, MI—the U.S. EPA has proposed updates to the rule. However, the updates do not go far enough, missing a critical opportunity at the federal level to eliminate this clear and present public health threat for good.
MPC is partnering with numerous local, state, and national groups to advocate for statewide replacement of lead service lines in Illinois. Service lines pipe water to homes and other properties from a utility’s water main; service lines made of lead are the primary source of lead in drinking water. At a recent MPC roundtable, speakers highlighted how big this problem is in Illinois, and why the State should adopt legislation creating a feasible and equitable plan, timeline, and funding for Illinois water utilities to identify and replace all lead service lines, from Chicago to downstate Centerville.
The shortcomings of the proposed Lead and Copper Rule revisions further underscore why the State must take the lead on this challenge. Several trusted partners have done thoughtful analysis of the proposed rule updates. The Environmental Defense Fund blogged about the draft, and Natural Resources Defense Council recently posted an analysis that the rule fails to adequately protect public health. The revision would delay the deadline for the most contaminated U.S. water systems to replace lead service lines, fail to require replacement of all lead service lines, and leave in place an outdated action level of lead in water that flies in the face of fact—that no amount of lead in drinking water is safe.
The revision would delay the deadline for the most contaminated U.S. water systems to replace lead service lines, fail to require replacement of all lead service lines, and leave in place an outdated action level of lead in water that flies in the face of fact—that no amount of lead in drinking water is safe.
We’ve known this for decades; in fact, yet we’ve already let another generation of children grow up drinking contaminated water. Black and Brown communities have been disproportionately exposed to more sources of lead—including lead service lines—due to legacies of disinvestment. According to research released this year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Black children have higher lead levels nationwide.
Make no mistake, however: This isn’t a problem just for some of us. More than 686,000 known lead service lines exist in Illinois, and potentially as many as 1 million, because many utilities do not know the composition of their lines. Illinois has more lead service lines than any other state, and that the costs of lead poisoning accrue to all of us. One example: in 2017, 1,470 Illinoisans died prematurely from heart disease attributed to lead exposure, costing nearly $28 million in hospitalization costs alone.
Illinois has the opportunity to do an about-face on this issue and become a national leader in lead service line replacement. Only three other states so far have established policies and programs designed to eliminate all lead service lines. Adopting a statewide program would make Illinois and its communities more resilient and less vulnerable to otherwise inevitable drinking water crises, by ensuring modern infrastructure that provides clean, safe water to all homes, schools, and businesses. This initiative would also generate some 144,000 jobs for Illinoisans, according to an economic impact analysis showing that for every $1 million invested in capital improvements to water infrastructure, 15 to 18 jobs are created.
This initiative would also generate some 144,000 jobs for Illinoisans, according to an economic impact analysis showing that for every $1 million invested in capital improvements to water infrastructure, 15 to 18 jobs are created.
If the federal government won’t lead on this issue, the State of Illinois must. As Erik D. Olson, Senior Strategic Director for Health at NRDC, put it, “You can't fix the problem of lead in drinking water until you pull all the lead pipes out of the ground. But EPA Administrator Wheeler will leave millions of lead pipes untouched and allow even the most contaminated communities to take 33 years to remove them. Much more aggressive action is required; abandoning an entire generation of kids to drinking this powerful neurotoxin for decades simply is not good enough."
Learn more about lead service lines by taking this short quiz, and listen to MPC’s recent event “Lead Weight: How We Can Drop This Drinking Water Threat for Good.”