Some cash-strapped Midwest cities are removing aging lead water pipes. Chicago, which has the largest inventory of lead pipes, hasn't tackled the problem. What can it learn from the cities that have?
This story was supported in part by the Solutions Journalism Network. It is a part of the H2OFail project, an international collaboration of journalists from more than 25 countries covering water issues.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The Flint water crisis spurred dozens of cities across the country to start removing lead pipes. But some big cities, like Chicago, have resisted launching what is sure to be an expensive project. Monica Eng of member station WBEZ took a road trip to check out the innovative ways some cash-strapped cities are getting the job done.
MONICA ENG, BYLINE: If you thought the nation's lead problem largely went away with Flint, Tom Neltner at the Environmental Defense Fund wants you to know this.
TOM NELTNER: Our country has an estimated 6 million lead service lines. Those are the pipes that connect the main under the street to the house. And it's like drinking water through a lead straw. So where people have them, it's one of the most significant sources of lead in drinking water.
ENG: And people have them in hundreds of towns - big and small - across the country. And the lead can cause significant health issues. But here's the good news; lots of towns are actively getting rid of them.
NELTNER: A hundred-and-eighty are already taking some action. Some of the models are American Water. And several states - Indiana, Missouri, Pennsylvania - are making significant progress - Greater Cincinnati Water Works and states are taking a leadership role.
ENG: So how are so many cash-strapped communities able to do it, when Chicago - with the biggest inventory of lead lines - can't even get started? We checked out three cities taking different approaches with the same goal - getting lead out without breaking the bank. First stop - Gary, Ind. Here, crews from that private water company Tom Neltner mentioned, American Water, were taking out dozens of lead lines connecting homes and businesses on a single block, including a daycare center on the corner.
AMANDA WILLIAMS: Hi. How are you? Good morning.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good. Good morning.
WILLIAMS: How are you this morning?
ENG: Preschool teacher Amanda Williams (ph) was thrilled.
WILLIAMS: That was good news. We go from 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, pre-K and kindergarten right here. And then we also have an infant house, which is in the back of us. They worked on that water line as well, so we were very excited about them coming to check out the water.
ENG: It's especially important here because even a small amount of lead can affect a child's brain development. Matt Prine heads Indiana American Water and has a plan to make this work for his whole network.
MATT PRINE: We wanted to be able to partner with our customers and do it at an affordable level.
ENG: That's by spreading the cost of the repairs to the water bills of all 300,000 customers in the network, whether they have lead lines or not. And that makes new water lines available to residents on a tight budget.
PRINE: And they tend to be homes with, you know, moms and dads that are working hard but just don't have the means to be able to afford, you know, what could be a $5,000 to $8,000 cost.
ENG: To pay for this and other system upgrades. The average Indiana American customer will see about an 8% price hike over two years. Prine estimates this will fund swapping out all 50,000 lead lines over the next two decades.
Next up is cash-strapped Detroit. Here, under pressure from a new state law, residents are also getting new lines without a bill. The city's piecing it together with capital funds, federal loans and more. But Deputy Water Director Palencia Mobley says it helps that they can replace lead lines at the same time they're redoing the water mains.
PALENCIA MOBLEY: Because you're already there, you've already begun excavation, you're already digging. And it's about a $1,500 to $2,000 savings per property.
ENG: But not every town can afford to give people new water lines for free. So in Cincinnati, they've come up with a different model. They're making removal mandatory but offering help. This was a relief for Rosalind Manifold (ph). Crews found a lead line hooked up to her house earlier this year and told her she had to get rid of it.
ROSALIND MANIFOLD: We first got estimates that were around 10 grand. We were thinking - uh-oh - would we have to take an equity loan on the house to get that fixed? Or what are we going to do?
ENG: What she did is work with the city, which negotiates a good price with plumbing crews, covers about half the bill, then lets residents pay off the rest interest-free over time. And low-income residents like Manifold pay even less. Cincinnati dips into the usual pots, like the operating budget and capital funds, to pay for the main program. But for that extra low-income help program, they get creative, says water spokeswoman Tiffaney Hardy.
TIFFANEY HARDY: We have payroll deductions where city employees donate a certain amount per pay period.
ENG: You heard that right. City workers volunteer to help pay for it from their own paychecks. And then there's Thirsty Thursdays.
HARDY: A lot of the breweries here in Cincinnati really love the fact that they get good, clean, quality drinking water to help with their beer. And so on Thursdays, we have fundraisers where people can come out, support their community. And a good portion of the proceeds from that night go to our help program.
ENG: Yep - keggers to help residents get clean water. Cincinnati water official Verna Arnette knows city is going to have different issues trying to get rid of its lead pipes. And she has one bit of advice.
VERNA ARNETTE: Just get started. You have to realize you're going to make changes over time as things progress and as you learn. But you just need to get started.
ENG: And in the end, that may be the most valuable lesson of all.
For NPR News in Chicago, I'm Monica Eng. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.