Despite Tests Showing Lead Contamination, Chicago Continued Installing Water Meters in Homes
By John Byrne and Michael Hawthorne City testing of Chicago homes with water meters found nearly 1 in 5 sampled had brain-damaging lead in their tap water, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s water commissioner acknowledged Thursday that the city continued installing new meters after learning about the alarming results in June.
Randy Conner, the city’s water commissioner, and Julie Morita, the health commissioner, said all 165,000 Chicago homes with water meters are eligible for city-provided water filters.
"It was just determined that this was the appropriate way of action between myself, Morita and the scientists," Conner said when asked why the city took so long to address the well-documented health risks.
The Chicago Tribune first reported in 2013 that the city water department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had found high levels of lead in Chicago tap water after lead service lines had been disturbed by street work or plumbing repairs, including the installation of water meters.
In April, a Tribune analysis revealed that lead was found in water samples drawn from nearly 70 percent of the 2,797 homes that returned free testing kits provided by the city during the past two years.
On Wednesday, Emanuel himself declared Chicago’s drinking water is safe while opposing plans introduced in the City Council to finance the replacement of lead service lines.
A day later, Conner and Morita announced the city would begin distributing water filters shortly before the water commissioner was scheduled to appear at a City Council budget hearing, a setting during which aldermen could slam the Emanuel administration for not doing more about the lead problem.
"What we’re committed to doing is taking a look at this thing holistically, and understanding what this is going to take to tackle this issue, from the feasibility, the framework and a funding perspective," Conner said about a $750,000 contract with the global engineering firm CDM Smith, which is required to submit a new review of the municipal water system before Emanuel leaves office in the spring.
Water utilities are considered to be in compliance with federal water quality regulations as long as 90 percent of the homes tested have lead levels below 15 ppb, a 1991 standard the EPA acknowledges is based not on the dangers of lead but because the agency thought the limit could be met with corrosion-inhibiting chemicals.
Morita, the city health commissioner, noted that the number of Chicago children with elevated levels of lead in their blood has steadily declined citywide for years.