Fact check: Durbin’s claim about Chicago area lead pipes is not a pipe


President Joe Biden’s $ 2.7 trillion infrastructure plan drew criticism from Republicans over the types of projects to be included under the “infrastructure” category.

CNN presenter Poppy Harlow last week put the question to Democratic Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who responded with an example from his home state of Illinois.

“Well, I can tell you that I am not excluding drinking water from the responsibilities of the government and not only the management of public health problems, but also the creation of jobs in America.” Said Durbin. “And we have 23% of all lead pipe conductors in America in the Chicagoland area. You bet I want to clean up this water supply, and I am considering this infrastructure.

For decades, the city of Chicago necessary pipes connecting the water pipes from the street to the individual properties be made of poisonous metal. This ended when the main service lines were banned by the federal government in 1986, years later, their use began to decline in many other places.

Biden’s proposal – dubbed the U.S. Jobs Plan – aims to eliminate lead pipes by allocating $ 45 billion to several programs of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

So we wondered if Chicago and the surrounding area really made up almost a quarter of the lead pipe in the country, as Durbin claimed.

Chicago and Illinois stand out, but national data is limited

Although Chicago is unique in its number of known lead service lines, experts told us it was difficult to determine the accuracy of Durbin’s statistics because no national inventory exists.

“The vast majority of cities don’t know exactly how many major service lines exist or where they are,” said Maura Allaire, assistant professor of water economics and environmental policy at the University of California at Irvine. .

Durbin spokesman Joe LaPaille told us in an email that Durbin “misspoken on CNN and said” Chicago “instead of Illinois.”

“However, Chicago makes up a large portion of the lead service lines in Illinois, and has more lead service lines than any other city,” LaPaille said.

LaPaille said Durbin obtained his statistics using figures highlighted by the EPA and the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmentalist group that pushed the Biden administration to accelerate the elimination of main service lines.

Senator Dick Durbin during a visit with Vice President Kamala Harris in Chicago earlier this month.

Senator Dick Durbin speaks during a visit with Vice President Kamala Harris to a COVID-19 vaccination site in Chicago earlier this month.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP file

the EPA website offers an estimated range for the number of leading service lines in the country: from 6 to 10 million. Meanwhile, a Press release of the Natural Resources Defense Council put the range for Illinois between 730,000 and 1.4 million. To reach 23%, Durbin took the high end of the state’s estimate and divided it by the bottom of the national estimate, LaPaille said.

The EPA estimate of over 6 million is based on Survey data published in 2016 by the American Water Works Association, the group representing water utility operators. The agency’s high-end estimate of 10 million comes from investigative work carried out by the same group in the 1980s and was adjusted to 9.3 million in a recent update for federal drinking water regulations.

The estimate of 730,000 also comes from the water utilities group, according to Jeremy Orr, senior advocate for the NRDC’s Clean Water Initiative. The figure of 1.4 million, on the other hand, comes from data reported by water system operators to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Illinois is one of the four states at require operators to account for the equipment of the service lines in their system.

Troy Hernandez, an activist for environmental justice, shows off a piece of lead pipe obtained from his Pilsen residence earlier this month.

Troy Hernandez, an environmental justice activist with the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, shows off a piece of lead pipe obtained from his residence during his home renovation in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood earlier this month.
Shafkat Anowar / AP File

To reach 1.4 million for the state, the NRDC included both known lead service lines and lines of unknown material that may be lead. Another category included in the state EPA’s dataset allows water systems to separately list lines of unknown materials that are not lead.

The number of lead lines and unknown lines that may be lead in the water systems of Cook County, where Chicago is located, and its surrounding five counties is a little lower – but not by much: 1 million of the state’s 1.4 million total are reported in the region.

The 23% estimate Durbin reached for the state’s share “is not unreasonable,” said Tom Neltner, director of chemicals policy at the Environmental Defense Fund who analyzed the Illinois approach develop its inventory.

“But it’s hard to be sure because the national number is so uncertain,” Neltner added.

Taking the 1.4 million pipes in Illinois that are or could be lead and dividing that by the EPA’s updated top estimate of 9.3 million, for example, the share of State is reduced to 16% and that of the Chicago area to 11%.

Our decision

Durbin said, “We have 23% of all lead pipe conductors in America in the Chicagoland area.”

His office told us that he intended to refer to the whole state, rather than just Chicagoland. Most of Illinois’ lead pipe can be found in Chicago and surrounding counties, so Durbin is not far away.

The biggest problem with his claim comes from his comparison with the nation. Unlike Illinois, which requires water systems to report the number of pipes that are lead or that may contain lead, there is no national inventory to use for comparison. The survey estimates cited by the federal government are broad, and the estimated share of Illinois and Chicago in these totals varies considerably depending on which end of the range is used.

We rate Durbin’s claim as half true.

HALF TRUE – The statement is partially correct but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

Click here for more about the six PolitiFact assessments and how we select the facts to check.

the Best government association short PolitiFact Illinois, the local arm of the nationally renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking firm, which assesses the veracity of statements made by government leaders and politicians. BGA’s fact-checking department has partnered with the Sun-Times every week, in print and online. You can find all the stories from PolitiFact Illinois that we have reported together here.


CNN transcript for New Day, April 13, 2021

“What we do – and don’t know – about the lead water problem in Chicago,” WBEZ, September 19, 2020

“What is the main ban?” United States Environmental Protection Agency, August 1989

Email: Maura Allaire, Assistant Professor of Water Economics and Environmental Policy at the University of California, Irvine, April 15, 2021

Email: Marc Edwards, Professor of Environmental and Water Resources Engineering at Virginia Tech, April 14, 2021

Email: Joe LaPaille, spokesperson for Durbin, April 14, 2021

Press release, Natural Resources Defense Council, January 15, 2021

Replacement of the main service line, US Environmental Protection Agency, accessed April 15, 2021

Press release, Natural Resources Defense Council, March 11, 2021

Revisions to the rules for lead and copper, Federal Register, January 15, 2021

National survey on the occurrence of major service lines, AWWA Journal, April 1, 2016

“Relationship Between Water Quality and Line Deposits in Midwestern Lead Pipes” American Water Works Association, March 4, 2019

Telephone interview: Jeremey Orr, Senior Counsel for the NRDC Clean Water Initiative, April 15, 2021

Inventory of materials for water supply pipelines for the reporting year 2019, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, accessed April 14, 2021

Report: Develop inventories of main service lines, Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, August 2019

Email: Tom Neltner, Director of Chemical Policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, April 15, 2021


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