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Lawmakers, advocates continue push for removal of lead services lines in Illinois

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Congress banned states from installing new lead water lines in 1986. Yet, most of the older pipes still haven't been removed. Illinois state lawmakers hope to finally address that issue this year to make sure everyone has clean water.

Experts say Illinois has one-eighth of all lead service lines in the United States. Lawmakers argue it's past time to replace those pipes.

Their plan could also create a state grant program to fund the project and technical assistance for utility workers. Research from the Metropolitan Planning Council shows Black and Latinx people in Illinois are twice as likely to live in areas with lead pipes than their white counterparts.

Sen. Melinda Bush (D-Grayslake) says her proposal is a reasonable and equitable path forward to ensure every community eliminates this issue. She also feels this plan is a significant long-term economic engine for Illinois.

"By replacing every lead service line in Illinois, we can create up to 11,000 jobs and $115 billion in economic activity every year," Bush said.

The sponsor explained that's completely separate from the money Illinois could save in education, health care, and criminal justice costs related to lead exposure. Rep. Lamont Robinson Jr. (D-Chicago) championed this proposal in the House before it passed on a 76-31-1 vote.

"65% of Illinois' Black and Latinx populations and 42% of the Asian American and Native American populations live in communities that contain 94% of the state's led service lines. Meanwhile, only 30% of the state's white population lives in these communities," Robinson noted. "This is clearly environmental injustice."

Bipartisan fight for change

Rep. Mark Batinick joined several other House GOP members in supporting the proposal. He felt an investment in public health is better than "continuing to pay the price" with lead infrastructure.

"It makes good economic sense to get out in front of this problem and invest in Illinois' public health, rather than continuing to pay for the problem as we're doing now," Batinick said.

He called on Senate Democrats and Republicans to support the plan and improve lives.

The Illinois Environmental Council started working on this legislation in 2017. Deputy Director Colleen Smith explained this is the closest lawmakers and advocates have gotten to having the measure reach the governor's desk.

"Illinois has an opportunity today with House Bill 3739 to take action and comprehensively address this issue," Smith said. "We urge the Senate to swiftly pass this bill to prevent another lead crisis and protect the lives of more than 350,000 children at risk of lead poisoning, and in the process create thousands of jobs statewide."

The legislation now awaits a hearing before the Senate Executive Committee.

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Mike Miletich

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