Challenges Drag Out Lead Pipe Replacement

As states continue to inventory lead pipes, full replacement deadlines are decades away.

April 17, 2024

Across the U.S., lead pipes are still used even though they have been banned in new construction since 1986. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no safe level of lead exposure exists for children.

Last year, Illinois had the most lead pipes—including from public water systems and drinking fixtures—per capita in the U.S., according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency estimated the Midwestern state has more than 1 million lead service lines.

Lead pipe usage has lingered throughout the decades because of a lack of federal or state removal strategies along with low funding and difficulty locating lead pipes. In Illinois, for example, water suppliers are still inventorying their lead pipes to plan for removal.

This fiscal year, Illinois also received more than US$100 million in funding through the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for lead service line replacement. Funding is expected to more than double in fiscal year 2025, but the National Resources Defense Council puts the estimate for replacing every lead service line in Illinois at $2.2 billion, while the Illinois Environmental Council estimates it would cost between $10 billion and $12 billion.

Even though state and federal governments have developed regulations and funding programs, lead pipe line replacement falls on the community water supplies, such as municipalities or local water districts. The EPA has proposed changes to the federal rules, which would set the goal of replacing all lead pipes within the next decade, with exceptions allowed. Still, the EPA has historically chosen not to enforce its existing standards.

However, advocacy groups support the shortening of the timeline to replace lead pipes. But due to the number of lines to replace in Illinois and current and proposed state laws, municipalities such as Chicago could have up to 2092 to replace their lead service lines.

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