As state continues to inventory lead pipes, full replacement deadlines are decades away

As state continues to inventory lead pipes, full replacement deadlines are decades away

Capitol News Illinois
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Lead pipes in public water systems and drinking fixtures have been banned in new construction since 1986, when Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act, but they are still in use across the U.S. and in Illinois.

The presence of lead pipes has persisted due in part to a lack of a centralized federal or state removal strategy, as well as inadequate funding and insufficient inventories of where lead pipes are located.

In Illinois – which has the most lead pipes per capita of any state, according to a 2023 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – water suppliers are in the process of inventorying their lead pipes to get a clearer picture of timelines for removal over the next several decades.

The health impacts of lead exposure are widely known. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level of lead exposure for children. While not technically enforceable, the U.S. EPA’s goal for maximum contaminant level of lead is zero.

Still, replacement efforts are slow, with environmental advocates, lawmakers and others citing lack of funding as a key barrier to progress.

“One of the most urgent issues that we all could be facing in Illinois right now is removing lead from our lead pipes throughout the state, both residential, commercial and public pipeways,” Sen. Mike Simmons, D-Chicago, said at a news conference last month. “I think it’s been pretty well documented that there’s a significant cost that will come with really doing justice to the task.”

This fiscal year, Illinois received over $100 million in funding through the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for lead service line replacement, and funding is expected to more than double in fiscal year 2025.

In 2021 the National Resources Defense Council estimated there to be 679,292 lead service lines in Illinois. In 2023, the U.S. EPA put the estimate at over one million lines in Illinois.

The NRDC puts the estimate for replacing every lead service line in Illinois at $2.2 billion, while the Illinois Environmental Council estimates it would cost between $10 billion and $12 billion.

Even as some funding has become available through that law and the federal Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, the allocations are not nearly enough to replace every service line in the state, regardless of who is estimating the cost.

While replacement is ongoing, a full inventory is crucial to develop a plan and budget for the complete removal of lead service lines in the state.

The IEPA is in the process of building a more conclusive inventory of lead service lines, requiring the state’s community water supplies to submit full inventories of their pipes by April 15. Even with accurate quantities, establishing adequate funding and feasible timelines is a struggle.

Replacement efforts in Illinois

While the state and federal governments have created regulations and funding programs, the responsibility of lead service line replacement falls on the community water supplies, such as municipalities or local water districts.

The state has been funding community water supplies’ replacement projects for years, although not at the multi-billion-dollar level needed to replace all lines. The IEPA provided funding through principal forgiveness loans from 2017 to 2023 under the wastewater category of the State Revolving Fund. IEPA awarded over $120 million in principal forgiveness funds during those six years and each applicant was eligible for a maximum award of $4 million annually.

Under the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, states are required to allocate 49 percent of state lead service line replacement funds as grants or principal forgiveness loans and 51 percent as traditional low-interest loans. IEPA spokesperson Kim Biggs said that in fiscal year 2024, there is a cap of about $2.8 million per principal forgiveness loan recipient.

“But we’re trying to figure out how we can get more and more from the federal government,” Iyana Simba, Illinois Environmental Council city programs director, said. “We need this funding to make sure that the cost of lead service line replacement isn’t passed down to individual homeowners, and that it’s also being done so in a more equitable manner.”

Aside from increasing funding, Simba said that developing community outreach, technical assistance and community planning could hasten replacement efforts.

The Illinois Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act took effect on Jan.1, 2022. The law requires community water supplies to create an inventory and replacement plan for their lead service lines. The report must be submitted to the IEPA by April 15. Yearly updates on replacement will be due every April 15 through 2027.

Read More: Lead service line replacement bill passes Senate, heads back to House

“So even while Illinois has about 600,000 lead pipes throughout the state that are accounted for,” Simba said. “I’m really hoping that through this inventory process we’ll get a better picture because there’s almost that same amount of service lines that are made of unknown material.”

The IEPA created the Lead Service Line Inventory Grant program to provide funding to community water supplies to identify and inventory lead service lines. The first round of funding was announced in January 2023, since then two more rounds have been awarded and the IEPA is currently accepting applications for the fourth round. The grant provided 260 community water supplies between $20,000 and $50,000 each in 2023.

The current FY24 project list from the IEPA includes 47 projects, totaling over $100 million. Illinois received around $107 million in FY24 and will receive $230 million in FY25 from federal funding.

Gov. JB Pritzker’s proposed FY25 budget would allocate $20 million to lead service line replacement planning grants. The capital infrastructure budget proposal also includes around $340 million in reappropriated funding along with almost $260 million in new appropriation for Lead Service Line Replacement loans.

Timelines for replacement

While the inventory reports must be submitted to the IEPA by April 15, it is not clear when line replacements will be completed, and state law lays out a decadeslong process.

The U.S. EPA has proposed changes to federal rules which would set the goal of replacing all lead pipes within 10 years, with certain exceptions allowed. The proposal follows decades of amending policies to tighten regulations on maximum contaminant levels. The most recent changes, however, have not been adopted, and the U.S. EPA has historically chosen not to strictly enforce its existing standards.

Advocacy groups, including the Illinois Environmental Council, support the shortening of timelines for replacement.

“So while we’re happy to see that other smaller communities are going to be put on this 10-year timeline. That’s even more stringent than some of the things outlined in the state bill,” Simba said. “We do need to see a shorter timeline for Chicago.”

Illinois’ Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act also establishes timelines for replacement based on the number of lead service lines within a community starting in 2027. Community water supplies with fewer than 1,200 lines have the shortest deadline of 2042, while supplies like Chicago, with more than 99,999 lines have until 2077.

Community water supplies can request extensions up to 20 percent of their timeframe, so Chicago could potentially have an additional 10 years, extending the deadline to 2087.

In February, state Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Chicago Heights, filed House Bill 4752, which would increase the maximum timeline extension the IEPA is allowed to grant community water supplies from 20 to 30 percent. If passed, the extension increase would mean Chicago could have up to 2092 to replace all their lead service lines.

DeLuca said municipalities do not have enough funding and a timeline extension is needed to make up for the lack of resources.

Advocates, meanwhile, have pointed to health care and economic incentives for replacing lead pipes. An October report from the NRDC, dubbed “Getting the Lead Out,” found removing lead pipes can reduce the risk of medical conditions in children, such as hearing impairments, short-term cognitive damage and behavioral problems. It would also help adults by reducing immunological and red blood cell damage.

The study found between $58 and $89 billion will be spent in Illinois over a 35-year period related to health effects of lead pipes, and removing them would save about $37 billion annually in health care costs nationwide.

Simmons said lawmakers need to work to secure more funding and stricter timelines.

“I mean, there’s not a lot of room to waffle on this,” Simmons said. “Already, our communities have waited decades to have access to safe drinking water and that includes zero lead pipes.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.


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