Challenges Drag Out Lead Pipe Replacement

Lead pipes are still used in the United States, although they have been banned in new construction since 1986. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe limit for lead exposure for children.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Illinois had the most lead pipes per capita – including from public water systems and drinking fixtures – in the U.S. last year. The agency estimates the Midwest state has more than 1 million lead service lines.

The use of lead pipes has persisted over the decades due to a lack of state or federal removal strategies, low funding, and the difficulty of locating lead pipes. In Illinois, for example, water utilities are still inventorying their lead pipes to plan their removal.

This fiscal year, Illinois also received more than $100 million in funding to replace critical utility lines through the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill. Funding is expected to more than double in fiscal year 2025, but the National Resources Defense Council puts the cost estimate for replacing every main line in Illinois at $2.2 billion, while the Illinois Environmental Council puts the cost at $10 billion Estimated at $12 billion.

Although state and federal governments have developed regulations and funding programs, replacing lead pipes is the responsibility of municipal water utilities, such as municipalities or local water districts. The EPA has proposed changes to federal regulations that would set a goal of replacing all lead pipes within the next decade, subject to exceptions. Yet the EPA has historically chosen not to enforce its existing standards.

However, advocacy groups are advocating for shortening the lead pipe replacement timeline. But because of the number of lines to be replaced in Illinois and current and proposed state laws, communities like Chicago could have until 2092 to replace their main service lines.

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