Lead On: A federal rule full of holes

Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava

For about three decades, Evanston has collected nearly 440 water samples for lead testing. 60% came from the historically White and wealthy 6th and 7th wards. Only 1.8% came from the historically Black 5th Ward.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: When my co-reporter Kalen and I started reporting this story, it was based on one of those hunches you really hope isn’t true one of those stories where, if you were wrong, it meant people were doing their jobs well. But if you were right, it meant Evanston officials were neglecting residents, and they were paying the price.

So, we started with an inkling. Then did some analysis. And more analysis. And more analysis. And with every map and graph and Excel spreadsheet, we came back to the same problem.

KALEN LUCIANO: Left untested, lead in water can have damaging and long-lasting health effects. Like every American city with a public water system, Evanston is required by the federal Lead and Copper Rule to routinely report the lead levels in its water to the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. Within the past two decades, Evanston collected more than 180 water samples from residents’ homes to test for lead contamination. Yet in that time, the city only tested Evanston’s historically Black 5th Ward twice.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Whichever way we sliced it, it boiled down to one conclusion: Evanston has barely tested the waters of its communities of color. With revisions underway for the Lead and Copper Rule, there are no plans to change the flawed sampling procedure on a federal level. The rule’s poor regulation of sampling leaves low-income and communities of color in the dark about what is in their water.  

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Heena Srivastava.

KALEN LUCIANO: And I’m Kalen Luciano. This is Lead On. 

KALEN LUCIANO: After our investigation, 5th Ward Ald. Robin Rue Simmons pushed for a representative sample pool in the 2020 testing period, leading to six more samples from the 5th Ward. She is now pushing for a resolution to mandate equitable water testing. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: But let’s rewind and figure out how we got here. This would not be the first time the 5th Ward has been neglected. Early 20th century redlining segregated Black residents and zoned the ward to disincentivize economic growth. The ward is also home to Evanston’s only waste transfer station, which disproportionately harms Black residents with poorer air quality. Educational, environmental and health disparities persist to this day. And undersampling in lead water testing only adds to the 5th Ward’s long history of disadvantages.

KALEN LUCIANO: Prior to the 2020 testing period, 60 percent of all water samples had come from the historically White and wealthier 6th and 7th Wards. Meanwhile, the 5th Ward made up 10.4 percent of the city’s population in 2010 but only 1.8 percent of the sampling pool.

Our research started with collecting decades of lead sampling data. After we plotted the data points and found disparities, we started asking some questions. Here are some of the responses we got: 

DARRELL KING: We’re in full compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule.

DAVE STONEBACK: There really has not ever been a big concern over lead.

CLARE TALLON RUEN: I think the city is doing the right thing and I think people can feel confident that our water is safe from lead.

JANET ALEXANDER DAVIS: Water wasn’t on anybody’s mind.

KALEN LUCIANO: In order, we heard from Evanston’s water production bureau chief Darrell King, Evanston public works agency director Dave Stoneback, Evanston resident and water educator Clare Tallon Ruen, and longtime 5th Ward resident and environmental activist Janet Alexander Davis. And they are all correct. Evanston residents have not been worried about lead because Evanston is in total compliance with the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule. The city is not breaking any laws.

But, what if the federal rule isn’t enough? What if it leaves room for inequalities to fester, and what if Evanston officials aren’t paying attention?

TOM NELTNER: So you need to get water that’s been setting for a long time in somebody’s house or setting for a long time in a pipe to see how much lead might be leaching into it. It’s really tough to do that in an apartment building.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: That was Tom Neltner, the chemicals policy director of the Environmental Defense Fund. He was appointed to the EPA-created Lead and Copper Rule Working Group in 2014. Neltner helped coordinate and manage a lead line replacement webinar with Evanston’s water department early last year. 

TOM NELTNER: Because you got to tell everybody don’t flush the toilet tonight, don’t drink water tonight. And then you’d come in and take a sample first thing in the morning. So the sampling is biased towards single-family homes, so that you get a proper sample. One where the water truly has been setting in the pipes overnight.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Single-family homes — that term is something that’s going to come up a lot. It’s just as it sounds: these are houses with one family living in it. The Lead and Copper Rule, or LCR, requires cities to collect samples from “tier 1 sites.” “Tier 1 sites” are single-family homes that have plumbing systems with lead piping. As Neltner explained, targeting these sites makes it easier for all samples to come from still water.

NANCY LOEB: Single-family residences in an area like Evanston are also more likely to be in the wealthier parts of the community. So if you’re targeting, as tier 1, single-family residences, you’re just initially selecting what could be the wealthier areas. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Nancy Loeb, the director of the Pritzker School of Law’s Environmental Advocacy Center, takes issue with this requirement.

NANCY LOEB: I don’t know, I find it troubling because many low-income people actually live in multi-unit rentals where the landlords don’t have an incentive to spend money to protect people. That distinction may make it less likely that you’re going to capture where there is likely to be lead pipes. I would actually require inclusion of those areas.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: That is the first drop in the bucket with how the LCR causes disparities in testing. The EPA’s requirements make it easier for cities to test wealthier households more. But, what is Evanston supposed to do? Science calls for them to only test still water, and still water is easier to access in single-family homes. The bias against the 5th Ward then, might be justifiable —  except you can find single-family homes in every ward in Evanston. 

KALEN LUCIANO: But let’s go back to that other requirement Neltner mentioned. The water has to set overnight, or for at least six hours, prior to testing, according to EPA requirements. The water needs to sit for a while to determine how much lead is leaching into it.  

TOM NELTNER: So who you’re going to miss are typically working families, right, because they’re both having to go to work in the morning. And being able to tell the kids not to use the water and to remember to take the sample is hard. You might miss younger families, because kids make it complicated, for all good reasons.

KALEN LUCIANO: And Evanston’s water production bureau chief Darrell King has noticed this issue. He said it’s hard to get people to opt in to testing. 

DARRELL KING: Well, most of the time, it just really comes down to access. You’d be amazed at how difficult it is to get people to participate, because the sampling process can be somewhat inconvenient on folks that are participating during that time. So, many times you include those properties that are relatively easy to assess and those folks that want to participate. What you saw many times, they’re in certain wards or in a couple of different wards.

KALEN LUCIANO: To be included in the sample, not only do you have to live in a single-family home, but you also have to be willing to turn your water off overnight. That keeps some residents from participating. This is called non-response bias — when certain groups in a sample are simply unable or unwilling to respond. But 5th Ward Ald. Rue Simmons disputes the claim that the 5th Ward is harder to access for testing.

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: I disagree with there being barriers, so there may be lower percentage of homeownership, but there certainly are concerned families that live in the 5th Ward. That is an excuse that I would not tolerate going forward. 

KALEN LUCIANO: So we had this data that showed a disparity, but we wanted to dig into the numbers more. We approached statistics professor Bruce Spencer. He looked at our findings and said Evanston is using a cluster sampling method to test lead levels. That means sample sites are sorted into groups — in this case, wards and streets. Then, the city collects from several sample sites in close proximity to one another. In 2017, over one-third of Evanston’s samples were on the same street as two or more other samples. 

BRUCE SPENCER: People do cluster samples to save money, so there’s less travel here, but it’s also usually true, almost always true, that you get less information from the same number of observations in a cluster sample than you do in a non-clustered sample.

KALEN LUCIANO: So the way that the city collects samples — that’s the second drop in the bucket. King said it’s really difficult to get people in certain areas to stop using their water for six hours. And cluster sampling makes this problem worse. It keeps some people out of testing and leads the city to focus on wards that are more likely to participate. The third and last drop is the lead level limit.

STEPHEN MCCOMB: Everybody now, if you look at the language around it, will say we’re below the EPA recommended level. No, the EPA is not recommending a level — the only thing that’s safe is zero.

KALEN LUCIANO: That was Evanston resident Stephen McComb. He ran the website Safe Drinking Water Partners to help city residents replace lead piping, but after it fizzled out, he started advocating for better drinking water regulations. The LCR requires ninety percent of a city’s sample sites to have lead levels below 15 parts per billion. That’s the way they measure the concentration of lead in water, by parts per billion. But that number is not health-based, according to Feinberg pediatrician Helen Binns.

 HELEN BINNS: The Lead and Copper Rule standard was set at that level because it was a doable level for the facilities. No, it’s not a health-based standard. No, definitely not.

KALEN LUCIANO: Proposed revisions to the LCR would lower the U.S. standard to 10 ppb, similar to European Union’s standard. Illinois already requires schools and daycares to notify parents when the lead level exceeds five ppb because of the potential to harm child development. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: So, that was a lot. Let’s recap. Why is Evanston testing their wards at unequal rates? Here are our answers so far. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Given the “single-family homes” provision of the federal law and the complicated sampling procedures, some Evanston officials said some wards are just easier to sample than others. On top of all this, the LCR sets the quota for safe lead levels at rates that aren’t healthy.

So Evanston’s Black residents haven’t known what is in their water, and it largely comes down to a few sentences under the “sampling procedure” section of a federal law. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Here’s where it gets a bit more complicated. The point of sampling isn’t necessarily just testing for lead. This is what Neltner said they’re really testing for:

TOM NELTNER: It is not trying to assess how much lead is in the water that people are drinking. It is trying to assess the effectiveness of the corrosion control program.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: The “corrosion control program” Neltner mentioned refers to the mix of chemicals that treatment plants put in their water. Those chemicals coat lead pipes and make sure no lead gets in the water. That goal, of testing the effectiveness of treatment programs, dictates how cities sample their water. Cities just want to make sure those chemicals are doing their job. But Evanston water chemist Eleanore Meade told us in April that aim can cause some issues.

ELEANORE MEADE: The problem is, is that the state wants you to historically go to the same sites again and again. I’ve been trying to get sites in different areas, like how you said, there’s a lot of areas in wards, like, six and seven.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: According to the LCR, Evanston has to return to the same sample sites every testing period to make sure the lead levels have not drastically changed. That means they are testing the same sites they chose back in 1992, unless a home has since opted out. Here’s how it went down back then.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: In 1992, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency gave Evanston a list of eligible houses for lead testing. Houses were eligible if they fit the “tier 1” criteria. That meant single family structures that “contain copper pipes with lead solder installed after 1982 or contain lead pipes; and/or are served by a lead service line.” Basically, single family homes with lead piping. Evanston narrowed down its final sites from that list, and were ultimately left with 136 eligible houses. Remember, these were not the houses that responded to requests for a sample. These were simply the ones that were eligible. We don’t know how they narrowed down that list to 136 homes, and no current city officials were around back then to tell us. What we do know is that there are 28,000 households and 155 miles of lead pipes in Evanston. Far more houses should have been eligible. But from that list, almost half of the houses were located in the 6th and 7th Wards, and only four were located in the 5th Ward. The 5th Ward made up less than 3 percent of all eligible homes for testing.

For a second, ignore non-response bias. Ignore that six-hour requirement to let your water settle. This isn’t about whether or not residents were willing to participate. This is about who Evanston decided to even ask in the first place. And when this all started back in 1992, the city decided to only reach out to four homes in the 5th Ward.

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: We have homeowners. We have concerned property owners and landlords. But more importantly, we have families that need to know if they are vulnerable to unhealthy lead levels in their water.  

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: The law itself is not explicitly discriminatory. But water testing in Evanston is done on the basis of convenience, and the ultimate impact is the undersampling of the 5th Ward. Here’s Ald. Rue Simmons again.

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: Every decision that is made in our city, for our businesses, our families, our neighborhoods, should be processed with an equity lens. There is a lot of work to do here in Evanston. But if we consider equity in every decision that is made, we will do right by the city, and residents in every neighborhood will enjoy the same livability, the same walkability, the same quality of life that the most privileged among us enjoy here in Evanston.

KALEN LUCIANO: On the next episode of Lead On… 

HELEN BINNS: It’s really across the lifespan that you have to be worried there are a lot of associations, studies that have found the effects of lead are concerning.

IKE OGBO: Evanston is in a high risk area defined by the Department of Public Health because of its old housing stock, so we do have buildings that were built pre-1978 that perhaps contain lead.  

TOM NELTNER: If they’re using federal money and if that money results in minorities being disproportionately impacted, even if that’s not the intention, that actually is a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

KALEN LUCIANO: …we’ll be talking about why a diverse sample matters in the first place. Thanks for listening. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Heena Srivastava. Thanks for listening. This episode was reported and produced by me, Heena Srivastava and Kalen Luciano. The In Focus editors of The Daily are Gabby Birenbaum and Andrea Bian. The audio editor is Alex Chun. The digital managing editors are Molly Lubbers and Jacob Ohara. The editor in chief is Marissa Martinez. Parts of this story were reported prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]  

Twitter: @kalenluciano

Email: @HeenaSriv

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Lead On: Loopholes in federal lead law left 5th Ward in the dark about what is in its water