As attention increasingly builds on lead content in municipal drinking water in Chicago and elsewhere, an Illinois city has become the first community to receive aid from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency specifically targeted at alleviating problems with waterborne lead.
The western Illinois city of Galesburg has received a $4 million loan from the IEPA to pay for a project that will replace approximately 2,000 privately owned lead service lines that connect properties to the Galesburg water system.
It’s the first water project loan specifically addressing lead issues, said Kim Biggs, a spokesperson for the IEPA.
The announcement comes on the heels of a Chicago Tribune report on water quality data, which found approximately 170 public water systems in the state exceeded federal lead standards during at least one year since 2004.
At the same time, more recent rounds of testing has also confirmed the presence of lead contamination in the drinking water at nearly two dozen schools, prompting the Chicago Public Schools to call for citywide meetings on the subject, according to published reports.
The issue of lead contamination has also sparked a class action lawsuit against the city of Chicago by residents who have asked a judge to order the city to pay to replace lead water pipes in the city, and fund health monitoring for city residents who may have been exposed to the lead. The city has asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing, among other grounds, the residents' demand would illegally impinge city sovereignty to set municipal water policy.
In Galesburg, the private service lines have caused waterborne lead contamination. The city was given preliminary approval for the loan, according to a news release. Officials expect the IEPA will make its final approval within a few weeks.
With the loan, Galesburg will replace service lines in addition to using anti-corrosive additives in city water, providing free water testing and free water filters. The city has already paid for a corrosion study to figure out the best way to control corrosion in the lines. The city also has started replacing service lines on a limited basis, but replacing all the lines is estimated to cost more than $10 million, according to the release. Officials are working out a plan to prioritize which lines to replace. They’re factoring in the properties that have had higher than normal lead levels in water tests, residents with higher than normal blood lead levels and residents’ financial needs.
"This funding from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will assist our ongoing efforts to eradicate lead from entering any property in our city through its water service line," Galesburg Mayor John Pritchard said in a release. "Water contamination coming from lead service lines is a widespread problem in our state that contributes to the public health risk of lead poisoning, along with other sources such as decomposing lead paint. We need to continue to be vigilant in our efforts to shield citizens from lead in all of its forms.”
The IEPA provides financial assistance for infrastructure through two low-interest loan programs in the State Revolving Fund. One of the programs funds drinking water projects that address human health and failing infrastructure.
As a “revolving fund,” the interest and payments on the loan are returned to the fund to be allocated to new projects.
“Loans have been provided to hundreds of water systems and communities throughout Illinois,” Biggs said. “More than $1.3 billion has been committed for wastewater/stormwater and drinking water projects since the inception of the program.”
IEPA expects more lead service line replacement projects will take priority for funding in the future.
The lead water crisis in Flint helped to turn the issue into a national conversation.
A new report by the National League of Cities says funding for this kind of infrastructure is hard to come by. Aging water systems need repair, the report said. The EPA estimates drinking water infrastructure and maintenance will require $384.2 billion.
“Water infrastructure maintenance needs are straining city budgets and at current capacity, cities cannot make up this deficit,” the report states.