State legislators and advocates introduce legislation that would create a plan, funding, and timeline for the removal of all lead service lines in Illinois
SPRINGFIELD, IL (Feb. 22, 2021) — Illinois Rep. Lamont J. Robinson (D-Chicago) has introduced the Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act (HB 3739), a bill creating a feasible and equitable plan, funding, and timeline for Illinois water utilities to identify and replace all lead service lines—the most effective way to eliminate toxic lead in drinking water. Illinois Sen. Melinda Bush (D-Grayslake) will file a Senate companion version.
No amount of lead is safe to consume, yet for decades lead was used for water service lines, the pipes that bring drinking water into our homes. Congress banned the installation of lead service lines in 1986, but most lines installed before then were never removed. At least 686,000—and potentially many more—remain in Illinois, the state with the most lead service lines in the nation. In addition, Black and Latinx Illinois residents are disproportionately affected by exposure to lead.
“Lead service lines are as common in Illinois as they are dangerous, but that danger isn’t borne equally across our state,” said Rep. Robinson, chief House sponsor. “A disproportionate number of these lead service lines are found in predominantly Black and Brown communities, displaying yet again the legacy of environmental racism at work in our most vulnerable communities.”
Even low levels of lead exposure can lead to learning disabilities, stunted growth, lower IQ, impaired hearing, and behavioral issues in children. Adults who have been exposed have higher risks of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and kidney and reproductive problems. These serious health problems come with staggering costs that accrue to all of us. For example, in 2017, 1,470 Illinoisans died prematurely from heart disease that was attributed to lead exposure, costing nearly $28 million in hospitalization costs alone.
“Illinois children live in a state with the largest number of lead service lines, increasing their risk of neurological and behavioral abnormalities due to lead exposure. That is unacceptable,” said Sen. Bush, chief Senate sponsor. “Given all we know about the severity of lead exposure, particularly among children and expecting parents, it should go without saying that the state of Illinois has a clear mandate to responsibly plan for the replacement of toxic lead service lines.”
The Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act would require all water utilities to find and replace their lead service lines while setting forth a feasible timeline based on national best practices. The bill would also establish a funding source to aid utilities in creating an inventory and replacing lead lines for all affected communities.
“The reality is that Illinois is out of time. A decade ago the United Nations declared safe, affordable, accessible, clean drinking water and sanitation a human right—essential to the full enjoyment of life. Illinois must step up and take action to replace the thousands of contaminated pipes throughout the state, particularly in Black and Brown communities that are struggling with countless other crises like health and a lack of community-oriented economic development. Babies, pregnant mothers, seniors—all residents have a right to clean water,” said Naomi Davis, founder and CEO, Blacks in Green.
Replacing all of Illinois’ lead service lines could also help put Illinoisans back to work by generating thousands of good jobs in the skilled trades. Over 20 years, lead service line replacement could create some 11,225 jobs per year and over $1 billion in related economic activity, according to an analysis by the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC).
“On behalf of the union plumbers and pipefitters of the Illinois Pipe Trades Association, we pledge our support in addressing the growing public health crisis of lead in our drinking water. We urge the Illinois General Assembly to take immediate action to resolve the issues of our state’s aging water infrastructure. Millions of Illinois citizens are impacted by unsafe levels of lead in drinking water, disproportionately affecting our poorest communities and our most vulnerable citizens. Without action this year, the human and financial toll will only continue to grow,” said Rick Terven, Jr., legislative and political director, Illinois Pipe Trades Association.
The bill includes numerous provisions to ensure equity. Establishing a funding source is one important component to leveling the playing field.
“In communities within close proximity to industrial facilities, it is imperative to mitigate cumulative exposures to toxins such as lead. Mandating lead service line replacement would reduce exposure to the risk of lead in the water, bringing some sense of security to the Black and Brown communities disproportionately impacted by environmental harms. Equitably funding lead service line replacement is critical to ensuring that those most vulnerable to exposure can access any resulting program and attain clean and safe drinking water in their homes,” said Brenda Santoyo, policy associate at the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.
In addition, utilities would be required to prioritize replacement at facilities used by high-risk populations, such as preschools and daycares. Also, a portion of the fund would provide water rate assistance for low-income families.
“This bill gives every community in Illinois the resources they need to replace the legacy infrastructure in their communities,” said Josh Ellis, vice president, MPC, which recently did an analysis showing that Black and Latinx residents in Illinois are twice as likely as whites to live in communities with the most lead service lines. “This is especially important for Black and Latinx Illinoisans, who are not only the most likely of Illinois residents to live with lead service lines, but who also are disproportionately exposed to other sources of lead, such as paint and soil.”
“Lead service lines demonstrate the direct connection between environmental policy and public health,” said Colleen Smith, deputy director of the Illinois Environmental Council. “Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the already urgent need for action. All Illinoisans must have access to safe, clean water.”
The bill would prevent a practice known as partial replacement, in which only the utility’s side of the lead line is replaced, while the portion of the line that runs under a private property remains. This practice can disturb the lead material in the remaining pipe, actually increasing the risk of lead leaching into drinking water.
“The federal government has yet to take meaningful steps to address lead in our drinking water, and it’s more critical than ever for Illinois’ legislature to step up and take bold action,” said Jeremy Orr, senior attorney, Safe Water Initiative, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “Illinois must mandate full lead service line replacement, ban the dangerous practice of partial replacement, and establish an equitable revenue source that ensures individual homeowners and ratepayers won’t have to shoulder the burden of paying to replace these lead pipes.”
Read HB 3739 on the Illinois General Assembly website. For additional information about the issue of lead in our drinking water, and how this bill will help prevent lead poisoning, improve equity, and put people to work, visit IEC’s website, MPC’s website, and NRDC’s website.