Des Plaines Ramping Up Lead Pipe Removal, High Costs

Currently, the potential cost to replace all lead pipes in Des Plaines homes and businesses is $134 million.

And rising.

The big question is: Who will pay for the federally mandated work?

Des Plaines and all other communities in the U.S. were ordered to replace all lead and galvanized pipes that carry water from underground city mains to all homes and businesses. Because lead pipes can be harmful to health even at low levels of exposure. Lead is a toxic metal that can accumulate in the body over time. For example, according to the Center on Disease Control, infants who drink formula made with lead-containing tap water are at higher risk of exposure because of the large amount of water relative to their body size. Consumers cannot see, taste or smell lead in drinking water. In 1986, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act, requiring the elimination of lead pipes.

Des Plaines public works officials estimate 6,700 potential city water lines will need to be replaced. That number will likely decrease when the city conducts an inventory of all or most residential and business addresses in October of this year. Des Plaines submitted his draft replacement plan to the state of Illinois in April, “based on what we know,” said Tim Watkins, deputy director of public works. “That's how we got to $134 million.” A final version of this plan must be completed in 2027. It is estimated that the project could take 20 years to complete on site, depending on the number of main service lines to be replaced.

To determine the exact number of lead pipes in Des Plaines, the city mailed surveys three times to property owners asking them to indicate what type of utilities they have. About half of city property owners filled out the form and sent it to the city. Thousands more answers are needed, Watkins said. Within the next two to three weeks, public works officials will place door hangers inviting homeowners to fill out the form. “We're just going to try the door hangers until August instead of mailing them out,” Watkins continued. “Then we will reassess where we are.” He urged residents to fill out the forms and send them to the city as quickly as possible.

The distance from a city water main to a residence is approximately 45 feet. If replacement is required, copper pipes are installed.

At some point in the future, Watkins explained, the City Council will hold a public meeting to determine how and who will pay for the infrastructure program. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has said it is up to local governments to make these decisions. There will likely be federal and state financial support.

“Some cities say residents will have to foot the bill for their portion of the pipe replacement. Others say the city and residents would split the cost equally. And some cities say they will pay the whole thing,” Watkins said.

“This absolutely needs to be done,” Watkins added. If the final cost is $134 million, that would be $6.7 million per year, “which is a little more encouraging.” However, it is likely that all costs will increase over time. The city would have to hire private contractors to carry out the labor-intensive work. Due to nationwide demand for their services, their fees may increase. There may also be delivery bottlenecks that could drive up costs.

The increase in local water mains over the past three years has forced Des Plaines to replace affected lead pipes with copper pipes, as required by the federal government. On about 25 different occasions, the city has paid the entire bill.

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