Lead On: “Sad, but all too predictable”

Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava

On the third and final episode of Lead On: Trump’s EPA, 2020 water testing and a new city law. We look at the Lead and Copper Rule’s future and where Evanston is going from here. 

KALEN LUCIANO: Last time on Lead On:

HELEN BINNS: It’s really across the lifespan that we’re worried about lead. For very small increases of lead, there are a lot of associations, studies that have found the effects of lead are concerning.

TOM NELTNER: The purpose of the Lead and Copper Rule sampling program — it is not to try 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.

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 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: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Kalen Luciano.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: And I’m Heena Srivastava. This is the third episode of Lead On, a podcast about Evanston’s biased lead testing practices. This podcast is serialized, so if you like what you hear, you might want to go back and listen from the start.

KALEN LUCIANO: After analyzing nearly 30 years of lead testing in Evanston’s water, we found something strange: 60 percent of all samples came from only two of Evanston’s nine wards. These wards — the 6th and 7th — are historically White and wealthy areas in north Evanston. Evanston’s historically Black 5th Ward made up only 1.8 percent of the sampling pool despite holding 10 percent of the city’s population. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Last episode, we looked at why biased sampling matters, how lead can affect people’s health, and what undersampling might mean for communities who are being left out.

KALEN LUCIANO: Over the last few years, the EPA has been working on revising the LCR. The agency published its recommendations for public comment in November 2019, and closed the public comment period in February 2020. The EPA said it would finalize its revisions by the end of this year, but has yet to do so.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Back in 2014, Tom Neltner, the chemicals policy director of the Environmental Defense Fund, was appointed to the EPA-created Lead and Copper Rule Working Group. This group recommended long-term revisions to the LCR.

TOM NELTNER: And we met over 18 months, usually two-day meetings, and dug into the rule and provided the agency with feedback and effectively called for an overhaul of the rule to say everybody needs to be starting to replace lead service lines. It’ll take a long time, but you got to start now.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: In 2015, the group gave the EPA their recommendations. They proposed communities set a goal of replacing all lead lines within 30 years. The EPA rejected this recommendation. Instead, cities will be required to replace the public portion of a lead line only when a resident chooses to replace their private portion of the line. 

TOM NELTNER: I think they were rushing the rule through to get it out because it still was way overdue. And I think they were worried about the price tag on doing lead service line replacement. But even the water utilities know they need to start that process. 

KALEN LUCIANO: Under the new rule, communities will need to replace their lead lines if they test above 10 ppb. Any system above that threshold needs to fix their corrosion control treatment. Systems in between 10 and 15 ppb have to work with the state to set a plan to replace their lead lines annually. And systems above 15 ppb have to replace a minimum of three percent of their lead service lines annually.

TOM NELTNER: So they’ve still made replacing a lead service line as a last resort. It’s what you do when everything else fails, when the corrosion control doesn’t get you there, so it isn’t an integral part of every community’s efforts. And that was inconsistent with what the national drinking water advisory committee recommended. We were disappointed the EPA didn’t do it and we called for them to do it now. 

KALEN LUCIANO: These revisions do not mention biased sampling procedures. While the EPA claims revisions will require systems to “identify areas most impacted,” this doesn’t change how homes will be selected for sampling. What this means is the EPA will require cities to 1) make an inventory of public lead lines, 2) pay attention to houses that test for high lead levels, and 3) find ways to mitigate the problem. The EPA does, however, require cities to adjust sampling sites to better target homes with higher lead levels. Still, none of this ensures cities will take a diverse sample of communities that are currently being left in the dark. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Nancy Loeb works as the director of Pritzker School of Law’s Environmental Advocacy Center. She has studied lead regulations for a number of years and said the EPA’s proposed revisions don’t go far enough.

NANCY LOEB: There has been significant pressure for a lot of years to revise the LCR to better protect people, and the science for the need is so strong. But I would consider or label what U.S. EPA is doing here as not a pro-health action, but something more defensive. Put something out there that moderately provides some benefits while limiting the costs and not providing the kinds of protections that are needed. So I think it’s a very cynical act actually, to back off the demands for further regulation and protection by doing something that’s not nearly enough.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Over the past four years, President Trump’s EPA has reversed nearly 100 environmental protections, including air pollution and emissions regulations, water pollution, toxic substances and safety, and drilling and extraction. 

NANCY LOEB: The time we’re living in right now under the Trump administration and the Trump EPA, which is focused not on protecting the environment or health, but much more focused on limiting any costs to industry and allowing wanton exploitation of our natural resources and this horrifying deregulatory agenda. And it is irrespective of the harm being done to people and the environment, and we are seeing it across all regulatory aspects of the US EPA right now, and especially when it comes to chemicals and toxins, and they are weakening regulations rather than strengthening them to protect people.

KALEN LUCIANO: While Trump’s administration has done little to fix the LCR, its issues stem from long before him and drip down to every local community water system, including Evanston’s. Over the last few years, Eleanore Meade, the Evanston water chemist who oversees lead testing, has identified some of Evanston’s shortcomings. When we spoke to her prior to the 2020 testing period, she was trying to fix biased sampling.

ELEANORE MEADE: So, I’m hoping that we can be better this time. It’s not a lack of trying, I will tell you that it’s not a lack of trying.

KALEN LUCIANO: If you heard some running water in the background, it’s because her office is right in the middle of Evanston’s water facility. Meade first tried to address biased sampling in 2017, the first year of regular testing after Flint, Michigan’s water crisis. 

ELEANORE MEADE: Once it was called to our attention, we definitely tried to do our best to, you know, look at different zones and see if there was any type of discrepancy and, you know, one zone being higher than another and what we found was that that was not the case. It really just depended on the home itself and not where it was located within Evanston.

KALEN LUCIANO: Since the LCR requires that community water systems test the same sites each cycle, the city can only change sites if one opts out. Meade conducted the 2017 additional non-compliance testing we mentioned in the last episode. She tested 14 additional houses that year. Of those, half were in the 8th and 9th wards in South Evanston. Only one was in the 5th Ward. Meade said part of the problem was finding people in the 5th Ward who were interested in participating.

ELEANORE MEADE: We can’t call every single person in the ward either, so we’ve tried and we reached out, but honestly we’re not canvassing the neighborhoods to get someone to help us out. If you know anyone that lives in ward five that would like to help us out, let us know, but I don’t know why that’s a challenge but for some reason it just is. So, I’m hoping that, as time goes on, more people might be willing to help us out.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: We talked to 5th Ward Ald. Robin Rue Simmons before the 2020 testing period, and she had never heard about the water department’s issue with getting 5th Ward residents to participate. 

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: So, there may be a lower percentage of homeownership, but there certainly are concerned families that live in the 5th Ward. We have families that need to know if they are vulnerable to unhealthy lead levels in their water. That is an excuse that I would not tolerate going forward.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: And so she didn’t.

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: Hello?

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Hi.

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: Hi. OK, so, we are going to pass a resolution. Thank you for all your advocacy.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Wow! That — wow, that’s crazy!

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: I talked — I didn’t want to say anything until I had an answer. Oh, I’m being loud. I think my daughter is in school. I didn’t want to say anything and get you all hyped up until I knew whether we could do it or not. But we are going to pass a resolution. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: City Council will vote on this resolution at its first meeting in January.

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: It will entail inclusion and full representation for all wards. Obviously it is inspired by that oversight that now all wards will have the same water testing and level of service from our water department.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: So what was the process like on your end to talk to Director Stoneback and get this done?

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: Well the process included — really it started with your advocacy and others being concerned, bringing it to my attention. Working with staff. Immediate action was appropriate to change this internal policy. And pushing him to think of a way that we can actually codify this and have some accountability on our part, and assurance to the community that this is a priority of ours, and we will advance with a resolution.

KALEN LUCIANO: Before Rue Simmons worked on a resolution, Meade was doing what she could to get a representative sample in 2020. This year, Meade tested six homes in the 5th Ward for lead contamination. She also expanded the city’s sample size from 30 to 40 homes to include historically undersampled wards. 

ELEANORE MEADE: When we looked closer at our sampling we saw that it was more concentrated in certain areas than others. And the way that the state rules are, is that they want you to keep on going back to the same sites, so we had to come up with a way to increase some other sites to get some more samples from other areas and not just be pigeonholed into those. 

KALEN LUCIANO: Prior to the 2020 testing period, Meade said the water department didn’t have the capacity to contact each eligible home in undersampled wards. But this year, she ended up greatly expanding outreach. 

ELEANORE MEADE: I just took it upon myself to really investigate and figure out what our options were and just go block by block to see like okay well, this house has a full lead service line and see if that’s where we need samples and see if they would be interested in sampling. So it just took a lot of research to figure out viable homes and then I just sent out a lot of emails and I called a lot of people. Googling and trying to figure out information for people and luckily I was able to contact enough people to meet our requirements and get at least three in every single ward. 

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: I believe that the entire city council values equity and the entire city council values our water quality and all other environmental matters in our city. I don’t believe there will be any opposition. I hope not.

KALEN LUCIANO: Even though Rue Simmons’ resolution will help ensure equitable testing going forward, this issue is not just about lead in water. The 5th Ward’s exclusion in testing fits into larger historical and societal trends.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: The loose LCR sampling requirements impact marginalized communities beyond Evanston. For example, the Chicago Tribune found in 2016 that the city was also only testing water for lead in low-risk homes. The majority of testing sites were homes of people who worked for or retired from the Chicago Department of Water Management.

REUEL ROGERS: The picture that your investigation is starting to uncover seems to me to suggest that here we have a sad but all too predictable pattern of inequality across places, not just in access to public goods, because we should think about access to water testing as a public service. It’s literally a public health good. And if those neighborhoods aren’t included fully in the water testing, it means they have less access to this public health good.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: This is political science professor Reuel Rogers, who specializes in race and politics. He said these inequalities run deep in marginalized communities. It’s not just in their access to water or proper lead testing, but in all other public amenities and public infrastructure. Evanston isn’t immune to these disparities.

REUEL ROGERS: It tends to be the case that racial minorities are often relegated to neighborhoods that are under-resourced, so you can reason logically that many of the people, Evanstonians, living in those distressed or under-resourced neighborhoods are also living in older building structures. We know from research on lead testing, that those are precisely the structures that tend to have high test results. They tend to have older water lines. And because of that a lot of those water lines aren’t necessarily up to the most modern codes that would limit lead or the usage of lead in the water line.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Despite these systemic disadvantages, government programs rarely account for this. Most rely on convenience sampling for participants to opt into testing. Lead testing relies on this method, which creates a non-response bias that tends to disproportionately affect communities of color.

REUEL ROGERS: And there are lots of reasons why you might see less participation particularly when it comes to something like convenience sampling. Participation often is correlated with political knowledge or political information. Awareness of how government works, how the political world works more generally. So we know from decades of research that racial minorities, African Americans included, tend to report lower levels of political knowledge and political information. Ipso facto, if they have less information — let’s say about something like the availability of water testing — they are less likely to participate in opportunities to get water tested in the buildings structures where they live. 

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: If we don’t have the information, then we don’t know that the opportunity is there to be tested or to improve our water. There is an income disparity. There is an education gap, but there’s also an information divide in this city.

KALEN LUCIANO: Even though convenience sampling doesn’t create an equitable provision of public policy, government programs commonly use them at every level — leaving marginalized groups heavily underrepresented across the board. As a result, communities of color and low-income residents are less confident in the government’s ability to respond to their interests and needs when it comes to the provision of public goods, like safe drinking water. 

JANET ALEXANDER DAVIS: This pisses me off because this should be different than this. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: That’s Janet Alexander Davis, the 5th Ward environmental activist.

JANET ALEXANDER DAVIS: It’s so many systems to the city, or to living in a home or house, or an apartment. It’s so much that regular people have to know in order to fight the good fight. You have no idea how these things really are put together and how you can change it. It’s really difficult.

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 protected]  

Twitter: @kalenluciano , @HeenaSriv

Related Stories: 

Lead On: A federal rule full of holes

Lead On: Drinking from a lead straw

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

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