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Getting Hosed: Bad Water Bills Aren't Chicago's Only Problem -- Many Residents Are Drinking Lead-Laced Water

CHICAGO (CBS) — If there's one thing our Getting Hosed series has taught us, it's that Chicagoans are paying thousands of dollars for bad water bills. 

But these billing gaffes aren't Chicago's only problem -- it has nearly 400 thousand lead service lines resulting in lead contamination.

Yet, Mayor Lori Lighfoot insists the water is safe. 

"The water that we push out is pure and good," Lightfoot said at a May press conference. 

Pure and good? Over the years, viewers have reached out to the CBS 2 Investigators concerned about the high levels of lead in their drinking water. 


Even elected officials have taken note of this ongoing issue. 

"Some neighborhoods have six times the level of lead poisoning," said former State Senator Heather Steans. "And every single one of those neighborhoods is high poverty and almost every single one is disproportionately African American."

But Lightfoot insists the water in Chicago is safe.

"Where are they getting that from?" Daniel Wasserman asked. 

Mr. Wasserman is a senior citizen living on the South Side and part of his fixed income pays for lead-laced water. 

"The idea that I'm paying this amount of money for contaminated water isn't very compatible," he said. 

Even low levels of lead are bad for your brain, heart, kidney and more. According to the Lead and Copper Rule, federal law allows lead concentrations of up to 15 parts per billion. But most research, including that from the Environmental Protection Agency, says no amount of lead is acceptable. 

Mr. Wasserman had his water's lead levels examined through Chicago's free testing program. The process requires homeowners to take three samples of their tap water. The first drawing is done immediately, the second drawing is taken between the two to three minute mark, and the third sample at five minutes. 

"My numbers were 24 on one drawing and 40 on another," Mr. Wasserman said. 

Twenty-four and 40 are both over the federal legal limit of 15 parts per billion and incalculably higher than the zero recommendation from the EPA. 

Mr. Wasserman is not alone. In 2020, 64.4% of Chicagoans who underwent this voluntary lead testing found they had lead in their water. 

The City posts all test results publicly on their water quality site, but the CBS 2 Investigators learned this data may not be a true representation of Chicago's lead levels.

Although Mr. Wasserman's lead samples were taken more than a year ago, they have yet to be published on this site. 

So how does lead end up in one's drinking water? Like many Chicagoans, Mr. Wasserman's home has a lead service line, meaning the pipe that carries water to his house is made of lead. Chicago has 387,096 lead service lines -- far more than any other U.S. city. 

Most major cities like Boston, Detroit, and New York stopped installing lead pipes in the 1950s and 60s. Although the dangers of lead pipes were well-known, Chicago didn't prohibit lead pipes until 1986, when the federal government finally banned them. 

Furthermore, from an economical standpoint, lead pipes should be replaced during water main repairs to cut costs. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel replaced 700 miles of water main, but no lead pipes during his term, passing the buck onto his successor. 

In September 2020, Lightfoot announced the Lead Service Line Replacement Program, which would replace lead service lines free of charge for qualifying homeowners. The program was supposed to begin that fall, but applications didn't open until March 2021. 

And due to the stringent application requirements, which discouraged many homeowners from applying, the city has expanded this program to include any single-family or two-flat homeowner with kids under 18 and an income under $74,550.

The program promised to replace 600 lines by the end of the year. To date, the city has replaced six -- a mere one percent of its year-end goal. And there are still 387,090 lines to go. 

"When you hear that number, what do you think?" CBS 2 Investigator Brad Edwards asked Kareem Adeem, the Director of Water and Sewer Management in Newark, New Jersey. 

"When I hear that number I say, "Wow!" Adeem said. "And the 'wow' is that's going to be a huge problem to establish and get done."

Newark compared to Chicago is a Shangri-La of water.

"We had the willpower to exceed the expectations of others," Adeem said. 

In January of 2019, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection issued its fourth official letter of lead action level exceedance to Newark, prompting the city to take action. 

To help fund its replacement program, Newark received $120 million in bonds from Essex County's Improvement Authority. 

To further expedite the replacement process, its City Council passed an ordinance that allows the city to replace pipes without the owner's consent. This ordinance was crucial since 74 percent of Newark's residents rent, and as a result, the city no longer had to track down landlords for permission to remove the lead service lines. 

During the process, Newark was replacing more than 100 lines per day. To date, the city has replaced 21,000 known lead lines and checked another 7,000 properties to make sure their lines had previously been replaced by homeowners, or a new property was built or a structure no longer existed.

Ultimately, Newark was free of lead pipes in under 30 months. 

And in addition to being lead-free, Newark also has zero unmetered accounts. 

Chicago, on the other hand, has 180,000 unmetered properties that are billed on guesstimates rather than actual water usage. 

"Does it surprise you that a city like Chicago has 180,000 unmetered properties that are billed on guesstimates?" Edwards asked Adeem.

"That amount is surprising," Adeem replied. "I'm quite sure there's a huge explanation for that."

The only thing huge is the amount we save consumers on every single unmetered bill we look at. 

And when we ask how the bills get so inflated, we are denied interviews and asked to submit public record requests for basic questions. 

One of the public record requests we submitted back in March, still hasn't been returned, even though the water department legally only has 10 business days to respond. 

Newark's officials believe that having lead in its water is unacceptable in the year 2021 -- which is why it found an effective solution to replace its lead lines. 

Chicago's solution for Mr. Wasserman's lead contamination? They gave him a water filter. 

"There's no excuse for that," Mr. Wasserman said. 

Chicago has yet to understand: water is a human right and a human need.

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