Cook County Record

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Class action demands Chicago replace lead water lines, pay for residents' lead exposure monitoring

By Jonathan Bilyk | Feb 20, 2016

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The city of Chicago could be forced to replace lead water pipes leading to homes throughout the city and pay for medical monitoring for lead exposure for a large number of Chicago residents should three city residents succeed in a class action lawsuit alleging the city failed to do enough to protect residents against lead contamination in their drinking water in the wake of city water line replacement projects.

On Feb. 18, plaintiffs Tatjana Blotkevic, of the 800 block of N. California Avenue in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, and Ilya Pesin and Yakov Yarmove, who reside in the 6400-6500 blocks of N. Albany Avenue in the West Ridge neighborhood on the city’s North Side, filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court against the city on behalf of themselves and a potentially very large class of other Chicago residents whose potable water comes at least partially from city-owned service lines made of lead.

The plaintiffs are represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, with offices in Chicago and Seattle, and the Freydin Law Firm, of Skokie.

The city of Chicago has since 2008 worked on replacing lead water service lines in various parts of the city, a bit at a time, seeking to reduce its dubious position as the U.S. city with the most lead water service lines. According to the lawsuit, nearly 80 percent of Chicago properties receive drinking water at least partially through lead pipes.

To combat the risk, the city has for many years treated its water supply with chemicals to react with the lead pipes and create a coating on the inside of the pipes to reduce corrosion of the pipes and prevent some of the lead from contaminating the drinking water.

However, the lawsuit said research has shown the treatment is not completely effective, and “can faily for a number of reasons,” and particularly “when pipes are disturbed by construction or street work, water and sewer main replacement, meter installation or replacement or plumbing repairs.”

When performing repairs or installing new water mains, the city has also partially replaced the lead service lines – a practice the lawsuit said contributes to increased lead contamination in the drinking water of homes served by those lines “that could persist for weeks or months” after the work is completed.

Despite these risks, the city has not done enough to warn residents of the risks associated with water line work and partial replacement. For instance, the named plaintiffs in this case said, when the city performed replacement works on the lines serving their homes, they were warned only that the water would be shut off several times while the work continued and instructed them to run their water for about 5 minutes at each tap to flush sediments and other compounds potentially containing lead that may have been disturbed during the work.

The plaintiffs, however, said such warnings are not sufficient, noting the American Water Works Association instructs residents to flush their water lines for at least 30 minutes at full flow following a lead service line replacement. And the complaint noted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency instructs those living in a home served by a lead service line to “flush pipes for 3-5 minutes any time water hasn’t been used for several hours – not just one time after street work or plumbing repairs as the city advises in handouts to homeowners.”

“Drinking the tap water in Chicago, particularly where the city has conducted a water main replacement project is ‘like a game of Russian roulette,’” the complaint said, citing Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental and civil engineering at Virginia Tech University, who studied lead levels in Washington, D.C.’s water lines.

The plaintiffs contended the risks of lead contamination from the water line work should have been well known by city officials, yet the city did nothing to mitigate the problem.

The lawsuit demanded the city pay to replace all lead service lines with copper for the plaintiffs and potential class members, which the plaintiffs seek to include all city residents who at any point lived “in an area where the city has replaced the water mains or meters … between Jan. 1, 2008, and the present.”

The plaintiffs also demanded the city establish a trust fund to pay for lead-related medical monitoring for the plaintiffs and the class members.

The complaint said plaintiffs can’t yet estimate how many people might be included in the class, but said “the number of people residing in the more than 1,600 areas where the city has undertaken water infrastructure projects.”

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Organizations in this Story

Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, LLPU.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)City of Chicago