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

This is what residential lead pipes will look like at the Riverside Treatment Plant in Elgin in 2022. Rick West

Lead pipes in public water systems and drinking fixtures have been banned in new construction since 1986, but are still used in the United States and in Illinois.

Lead pipes continue to exist, in part due to the lack of a centralized disposal strategy at the federal or state level, as well as inadequate funding and inadequate inventories of lead pipe locations.

Illinois has the most lead pipes per capita in the U.S. in 2023. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report estimates the state has more than 1 million lead pipes. Map: Cole Longcor, Capitol News IllinoisSource: US Environmental Protection AgencyGet the dataCreated with Datawrapper

In Illinois — which has the most lead pipes per capita of any state, according to a 2023 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study — water utilities are in the process of inventorying their lead pipes to get a clearer picture of removal timelines.

The health effects of lead exposure are well known. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe limit for lead exposure for children. Although technically unenforceable, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) target for maximum pollutant levels of lead is zero.

Still, replacement efforts are making slow progress as environmentalists, lawmakers and others cite a lack of funding as a major obstacle to progress.

In 2022, Elgin alerted residents after some drinking water samples exceeded allowable levels of lead in a recent test. Rick West

“One of the most pressing issues we all may face in Illinois right now is removing lead from our lead pipes across the state, both residential, commercial and public,” said Sen. Mike Simmons, D- Chicago, in a press conference last month. “I think it’s pretty well documented that there’s a significant cost involved in actually doing the job.”

This fiscal year, Illinois received over $100 million in funding for major utility replacement through the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill, and the funding is expected to more than double in fiscal year 2025.

In 2021, the National Resources Defense Council estimated that there are 679,292 lead service lines in Illinois. By 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate there will be over a million pipes in Illinois.

The NRDC puts the estimated cost of replacing every main line in Illinois at $2.2 billion, while the Illinois Environmental Council estimates the cost at $10 billion to $12 billion.

While replacement is underway, a complete inventory is critical to develop a plan and budget for the complete removal of major utility lines in the state.

The IEPA is creating a more meaningful inventory of main service lines and requiring the state's municipal water utilities to submit complete inventories of their lines by April 15. Even with precise quantities, it is difficult to determine adequate funding and feasible timelines.

Replacement efforts

While the state and federal governments have created regulations and funding programs, the responsibility for pipe replacement lies with municipal water utilities, such as municipalities or local water districts.

The state has been funding replacement projects for municipal water supplies for years, but not to the billions of dollars that would be required to replace all the pipes. IEPA provided funds through principal forgiveness loans under the wastewater category of the State Revolving Fund from 2017 to 2023. The 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 per year.

Under the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill, states are required to provide 49 percent of funds for replacing state utilities as grants or repayment loans and 51 percent as traditional low-interest loans. IEPA spokeswoman Kim Biggs said there is a cap of about $2.8 million per primary loan recipient in fiscal year 2024.

“But we’re trying to figure out how to get more and more from the federal government,” said Iyana Simba, urban program director for the Illinois Environmental Council. “We need this funding to ensure that the cost of replacing main service lines is not passed on to individual homeowners and that this is done in a more equitable manner.”

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

The Illinois Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act went into effect on January 1, 2022. The law requires municipal water suppliers to prepare an inventory and replacement plan for their lead service lines. The report must be submitted to the IEPA by April 15. Annual updates are due by 2027.

“Even though Illinois has about 600,000 lead pipes recorded across the state,” Simba said, “I really hope that through this inventory process we can get a better picture, because there are almost as many service lines as are made of unknown material.”

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

IEPA's current FY24 project list includes 47 projects with a total value of over $100 million. Illinois received about $107 million in FY24 and will receive $230 million in federal funds in FY25.

Gov. JB Pritzker's proposed FY25 budget would provide $20 million for grants for service line replacement planning. The capital infrastructure budget proposal also includes approximately $340 million in repurposed funds and nearly $260 million in new funds for Lead Service Line Replacement loans.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed changes to federal regulations that would set a goal of replacing all lead pipes within 10 years, with certain exceptions allowed. The proposal follows decades of policy changes to tighten regulations on maximum pollution levels. However, the recent changes have not been adopted, and the US EPA has historically chosen not to strictly enforce its existing standards.

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

Illinois' Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act also establishes replacement schedules beginning in 2027 based on the number of lead service lines within a community. Municipal water supplies with fewer than 1,200 pipes have the shortest deadline of 2042, while utilities like Chicago with fewer than 1,200 pipes have the shortest deadline of more than 99,999 pipes by 2077.

The state plan calls for several decades to replace the main service line. The Lead Service Line Replacement Notification Act of 2021 establishes lead service line replacement schedules based on the number of lead lines in use and allows for extensions of up to 20 percent. A bill pending in the General Assembly would increase the extension to 30 percent. Source: Illinois Environmental Protection Agency • Chart: Cole Longcor, Capitol News Illinois

Municipal water utilities can request extensions of up to 20 percent of their time frame, potentially giving Chicago another 10 years.

In February, state Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Chicago Heights, filed House Bill 4752, which would increase the maximum extension the IEPA allows to grant municipal water coverage from 20 to 30 percent. If passed, the expansion would mean Chicago would have until 2092 to replace its leading service lines.

Meanwhile, advocates have pointed to health and economic incentives for replacing lead pipes. A report released by the NRDC in October, “Getting the Lead Out,” concluded that removing lead pipes can reduce the risk of childhood illnesses such as hearing loss, short-term cognitive damage and behavioral problems. It would also help adults by reducing immunological and red blood cell damage.

The study found that between $58 billion and $89 billion will be spent in Illinois over 35 years related to the health effects of lead pipes. Removing them would save about $37 billion in health care costs nationwide each year.

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 about it,” Simmons said. “Our communities have been waiting decades to have access to clean drinking water, and that includes lead-free plumbing.”

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