Chicago may resume water mater installations two years after troubling lead tests prompted a pause

Chicago may resume water mater installations two years after troubling lead tests prompted a pause

A water meter in the basement of a Chicago home. | Sun-Times file

Cheng said the city is now testing an “ultra-sonic” meter that is potentially safer than the old version. Officials had suspected meter installation let loose particles that triggered elevated lead levels.

Chicago may soon resume water meter installations two years after elevated lead levels prompted Mayor Lori Lightfoot to hit the pause button, a top mayoral aide said Wednesday.

Newly-appointed Water Management Commissioner Andrea Cheng delivered the hopeful news during her confirmation hearing before the City Council’s Committee on Budget and Government Operations.

Cheng said the city is now testing an “ultra-sonic” meter that is potentially safer than the old version. Officials had suspected meter installation let loose particles that triggered elevated lead levels.

“The meters don’t have lead in them. So it’s something else. More like disturbance. We were able to create this ultrasonic meter study where we’re looking at a different meter that doesn’t have any moving parts that, we think, may have less disturbance on our corrosion-control lining,” she said.

“Those results are expected to be around in the fall. If those results show that installing those ultrasonic meters don’t have an impact, then we’ll be able to begin the MeterSave program again. If they do show that there’s an impact, then we’ll have to come up with a different plan.”

Chicago Department of Water Management employees at a water main break in January 2019. Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file
Chicago Department of Water Management employees at a water main break in January 2019.

In the meantime, Cheng encouraged Chicago households “still waiting for a water meter” to consider Lightfoot’s go-slow plan to replace lead service lines carrying water from street mains to nearly 380,000 Chicago homes.

Rather than ask all Chicago homeowners to share the cost, Lightfoot has opted to start small, with the city replacing lead service pipes at 600 homes in impoverished Chicago neighborhoods.

For homeowners willing to hire contractors and assume replacement costs, the city has offered to waive up to $3,300 in permit fees, connect the new service line to the water main and install a free water meter when the project is completed. To qualify, it must be a “stand-alone” request, not related to a renovation or expansion that requires a larger water line.

The city also will choose an entire block — roughly 50 homes — where all service lines will be replaced as the water main is replaced. The city has applied for an Illinois EPA revolving loan of up to $4 million to cover that program.

“The equity program is free. We are doing a free lead service line replacement program and it comes with a meter if they don’t already have one for free,” Cheng said.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) noted the $15 million in community development bloc grant funds Lightfoot has earmarked to replace lead service lines — at a cost ranging from $15,000-to-$26,000-per-line — is a “drop in the bucket.”

“We’re talking decades before we actually come to a position where the city of Chicago is lead-free,” said Villegas, the mayor’s former floor leader.

Cheng acknowledged Chicago has 400,000 lead service lines and it would cost $8.5 billion to replace all of them.

“Clearly, this year’s pace is meant to be a quality-over-quantity pace. We’re really learning this year so we can build up and expand next year and future years. We’ll be doing more like in the thousands in coming years so we can get this done on an expedited pace. But this is our learning year,” she said.

Cheng, noting that EPA administrator Michael Regan chose Chicago’s Jardine Water Filtration plant to “talk about funding water infrastructure,” said she’s hoping for an influx of federal funds to replace lead service lines.

“It’s more likely to be on the federal level than the state. But we’re definitely exploring all the options as well as looking at different construction techniques to lower our costs,” she said.

Cheng, a 16-year veteran of the Department of Water Management, told aldermen “I live and breathe water.”

She has held down the fort since the January ouster of Commissioner Randy Conner in a department at the center of the Hired Truck and city hiring scandals and the more recent scandal involving racist, sexist and homophobic emails.

During Wednesday’s confirmation hearing, Cheng vowed to implement a “Together We Heal” program — complete with quarterly events and senior staff training by an outside firm — to wipe out the vestiges of racism, sexism and insensitivity in the department.

Increased training wasn’t enough to satisfy Budget Committee Chairman Pat Dowell (3rd). She wanted to know what Cheng intended to do to remedy longstanding complaints about discrimination in work assignments, locations and pay for the same work.

Cheng said she was looking to do “some analysis to … help identify those issues that need to be addressed on a broader scale,” Cheng said. “Are there things that we don’t realize are causing systemic issues?”