The problem within: Biden targets lead pipes, pushes equity

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Troy Hernandez, an environmental justice activist with Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization shows a piece of lead pipe obtained from his residence during his home renovation, Friday, April 9, 2021 in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. Hernandez recently spent $15,000 to replace the lead service lines bringing water into his home. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar)

CHICAGO – In the modest bungalows and two-flats of Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, there’s never a shortage of needed home repairs staring residents in the face. And then there is the less obvious but more ominous problem lurking in their pipes.

“There are so many issues that seem more immediate, whether it’s the roof, the windows, siding, insulation,” said 51-year-old Enrique Nieto, who has lived in the predominantly Latino neighborhood all his life. “The lead issue is not the one that’s right in front of you.”

Given short shrift by public officials for decades, the lead pipes snaking through Chicago and communities of every size from rural Maine to suburban California are in the national spotlight now as President Joe Biden pushes to spend $45 billion to replace every lead water pipe in the country as part of his big infrastructure package.

The moon-shot plan could have huge ramifications for this city and others where a swath of Black, Latino and low-income residents have been left effectively drinking from a lead straw decades after scientists established that lead consumption is unsafe at any level.

The White House holds out its lead-pipe proposal as a generation-changing opportunity to reduce brain-damaging exposure to lead in 400,000 schools and child care centers and 6 million to 10 million homes. It’s also an effort that the administration says can help create plenty of good-paying union jobs around the country.

There are few, if any, cities where the issue is more salient than Chicago. The nation’s third-largest city is still estimated to have some 380,000 lead pipes bringing water into homes, schools and businesses. The city required their use until a 1986 federal ban that came long after most other American cities had phased out their use in the face of an avalanche of research on lead’s toxicity.

Biden’s plan “would be enormous if it comes through,” said Troy Hernandez, an environmental activist in the city’s predominantly Latino Pilsen neighborhood. Hernandez recently spent $15,000 to replace the lead service lines bringing water into his home. “I question whether $45 billion is enough, but it’s a really important step.”

Since announcing his infrastructure plan, Biden has tried to frame his ambitious effort on lead pipes as advancing the cause of racial equity. The problem has long had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, according to environmental advocates and research.