Ahead of state mandate, Wheeling replaces lead water service lines

  • Lead from pipes like this one can leach into drinking water. All the lead service lines in Wheeling's water system have been replaced over the past year with safer copper pipes.

    Lead from pipes like this one can leach into drinking water. All the lead service lines in Wheeling's water system have been replaced over the past year with safer copper pipes. AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar

 
 
Updated 6/30/2021 5:28 PM

All the potentially hazardous lead service lines in Wheeling's water system have been replaced as part of an estimated $1.2 million project, officials announced.

The work was done even though no dangerous lead levels have been reported in Wheeling's drinking water and before a pending state mandate kicks in.

 

Wheeling Village Manager Jon Sfondilis said it's a case of staying ahead of the curve "and meeting current service expectations before being regulated to do so."

Lead exposure through drinking water or other sources can cause physical, neurological and behavioral abnormalities or illnesses. The installation of new lead service lines has been banned in the U.S. since 1986.

The nation's most notorious case of lead poisoning in water was discovered in Flint, Michigan, in 2014 and still hasn't been fully rectified. Lead from aging pipes leached into the water supply.

Service lines are relatively small pipes that send drinking water from public mains to homes. Hundreds of thousands of lead service lines exist in Illinois, the Natural Resources Defense Council recently reported. Most are in Chicago.

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Last year, Chicago officials announced plans to begin replacing lead service lines across the city after decades downplaying the potential health threat.

In Wheeling, trustees approved the pipe replacement project in 2019. Teaming with consultants, the village identified 110 lead lines in town. Starting last summer, crews with Chicago-based Joel Kennedy Constructing Corp. replaced them with copper pipes.

The work -- initially expected to cost more than $1.8 million -- wrapped up in June.

In a news release, Village President Pat Horcher called the project "a credit to the village board's ongoing commitment to community health and safety."

Wheeling got funding for the project through a low-interest loan program for water supply projects offered by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The program includes a 50% forgiveness incentive for up to $1 million.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The village also got a roughly $348,000 grant from the Northwest Water Commission for the project.

"Wheeling was able to take advantage of significant grant opportunities that may not be available in the future," Sfondilis said.

Money for the village's share of the cost was set aside as part of a local capital improvement plan.

Residents whose lines were replaced didn't have to directly contribute to the cost of the work.

Wheeling officials insist the village's water supply was safe even when the former lead pipes were used. Drinking water quality consistently complied with state environmental regulations, they said.

Sfondilis is aware of only one other Chicago-area community -- West-suburban Montgomery -- that has completed a similar project.

But the process soon could become common.

In late May, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring water utilities to replace lead service lines. It awaits Gov. J.B. Pritzker's signature.

Under the bill, water utilities would be required to submit a plan for lead service line replacement by April 2024, with a final plan due to state environmental officials by April 2027.

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