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Despite Tests Showing Lead Contamination, Chicago Continued Installing Water Meters in Homes

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.

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.

Disclosure of the previously secret study of 296 metered homes comes after more than five years of denials by Emanuel and his aides that the nation's third-largest city has a widespread lead problem, even as the scandal in Flint, Mich., drew national attention to the hazards and other research in Chicago consistently found the toxic metal in drinking water.

The Emanuel administration's sudden reversal, outlined at a hastily organized City Hall news conference, adds Chicago to a growing list of cities that are distributing water filters to homes with lead service lines, which in Chicago were required by the city's plumbing code until Congress banned the practice in 1986.

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. Money collected through water bills will cover the cost of $60 kits that include a pitcher and six replacement filters, Conner said.

"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.

Emanuel dramatically expanded that type of work after taking office in 2011. His administration has borrowed more than $481 million for water conservation projects, including the installation of household meters and new water mains citywide. The city has steadily raised water rates to pay back the 20-year loans.

None of the money has been earmarked to replace lead service lines.

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. The toxic metal turned up in samples collected throughout the city, the newspaper found. Tap water in 3 of every 10 homes tested had lead concentrations above 5 parts per billion, the maximum allowed in bottled water by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

As recently as September, mayoral aides and water department officials continued to insist that it is up to individual homeowners to protect themselves from mostly invisible particles leaching out of lead pipes the city required by law for decades. 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. He accused the measure's authors of treating homeowners "as an ATM machine" by proposing to pay for the project with a 1 percent tax on sales of Chicago homes worth more than $750,000.

"I believe in science in forming good policy decisions," Emanuel said.

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.

Revealing the plan to distribute water filters provided Conner with a response to blunt the criticism. Yet there is no guarantee any other action will be taken beyond conducting another study.

"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.

Lead is unsafe at any level, according to the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Emanuel and his aides this week continued their technically true but misleading defense that Chicago drinking water is safe because it meets federal standards.

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.

Chicago conducts this type of testing in just 50 homes every three years -- the minimum required -- and typically doesn't find anything wrong. Most of the Chicago homes tested for regulatory purposes during the past decade were owned by water department employees or retirees living on the Far Northwest and Far Southwest sides.

Aldermen who have been calling for the removal of lead service lines held their own City Hall news conference Thursday. They criticized the Emanuel administration for not immediately publicizing the results of the city's study of metered homes and for failing to stop installing meters after learning the work could be putting Chicagoans at risk.

"It's dangerous, it's irresponsible and it's unacceptable," said Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th.

"I think the lack of transparency and the communication is what's lacking here," said Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th, one of the sponsors of the proposed transfer tax Emanuel opposes. "They need to do a better job. Let's get ahead of this thing."

Paul Vallas, one of the candidates to replace Emanuel as mayor, has urged Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to investigate.

"Since June, I have been calling on the city to take more aggressive action to address our lead in the drinking water problem, but the Emanuel administration has dismissed me as a panic peddler," Vallas said in a statement that accused the mayor and his aides of "an unbelievable level of cynicism" in their public statements on the issue.

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. "First and foremost, there is no public health crisis," she said.

Most lead exposure comes from ingesting dust in homes built before 1978 with lead-based paint. A 2015 Tribune investigation found that while the rate of childhood lead poisoning has declined citywide, more than a fifth of the children tested in some of the poorest parts of Chicago still had levels of the toxic metal in their blood that exceeded CDC guidelines.

The city later announced it would begin testing water in the homes of poisoned children for the first time.

(c)2018 the Chicago Tribune

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