Illinois has the most lead service lines in the nation, with an estimated 700,000 to more than one million of them.
"What the Eyes Don't See" was the 2020-2021 Common Read.

While much of the Harris School of Public Policy community was learning more about the Flint water crisis as detailed in this year’s riveting Common Read, students in the Policy Labs program were focused on lead-contamination risks to drinking water closer to home.

Illinois has the most lead service lines — typically the biggest source of brain-damaging lead in tap water — in the nation, with an estimated 700,000 to more than one million of them. The Chicago-based Metropolitan Planning Council has pushed for removal of those lines. It collaborated with a Harris Policy Labs team on a toolkit to estimate replacement costs and calculate the revenue needed to pay for such work. Policy Lab students  finished right before Illinois legislators passed a bill, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign, that mandates replacement of all lead services lines in the state.

“Our immediate next step is to advocate for state and federal funding to ensure there are resources available to communities” for the removal, said MPC Manager Justin Williams. “The toolkit will help us develop estimates of statewide need as we advocate.”

Michelle Hoereth, Assistant Dean, Diversity and Inclusion

At the same time, another Policy Labs team was working on the lead service line situation in Wisconsin. There, currently funded Department of Natural Resources and Public Service Commission programs can cover less than half of the cost to replace the state’s 150,000 to 200,000 lead service lines. Recommendations from students from Harris and the University of Chicago Law School will help those Wisconsin agencies plan future spending.

The Policy Labs teams worked in parallel through the Winter Quarter and completed their work in March. Then on May 19, the Harris Office of Diversity & Inclusion, in collaboration with the Program on Global Environment's Frizzell Family Speaker and Learning Series, hosted Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, whose What the Eyes Don’t See is a firsthand account of the health disaster in Flint, Michigan, where lead from pipes leached into the drinking water.  

The event underscored the need to address the lead service line issue. “We often talk about the cost of digging up these pipes, but we fail to have the conversations about the cost of inaction,” Hanna-Attisha said. “There is a cost for us not doing anything,” she added, describing the situation as an “environmental and public health crisis.”

Justin Williams

Much of the crisis is centered in the industrial Midwest which made it logical to sync the Policy Labs — elective courses that allow students to work on real-world projects — and the Common Read, which was historically for Harris’ first-year students but now has community-wide readership. The idea of linking a lab and Hanna-Attisha’s topic was first suggested by a student. Then, Paula R. Worthington, the academic director of the Policy Labs program and a senior lecturer at Harris, approached MPC about a collaboration. She followed that up by reaching out to officials in Wisconsin and students got to work.

“The alignment worked this year,” said Worthington, adding that for the labs, students didn’t focus on why there are so many lead service lines or dwell on “the voluminous evidence that lead in the water supply presents a public health risk to the people who are drinking it. We took that as a given and said ‘How many lines do you have?’ ‘What’s it going to cost to replace them?’ ‘Where are you going to get that money?’ and ‘Who’s going to be paying?’ “

Carol Brown, Executive Director, Harris Policy Labs

Finances are paramount to solving the problem of lead service lines – a problem which falls into several policy spheres, including environmental and social equity. While Chicago’s lead pipe problem, which is the worst in the nation, affects residents in every neighborhood, lead service lines have a disproportionate impact on the city’s lower-income communities — as they did in Flint. 

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal includes $45 billion to eliminate all lead pipes and service lines (which branch off of a water main to deliver water to residential and commercial properties). But congressional approval is uncertain.

It’s against that backdrop that Illinois and Wisconsin projects are moving ahead.

Illinois is taking a statewide approach.  Passed on May 31, HB 3739 would require all water utilities to develop a comprehensive plan for the replacement of lead service lines in their service areas.

Paula Worthington, Senior Lecturer

In the Policy Lab, students created a cost/revenue toolkit for the MPC and analyzed alternative water rate surcharge structures to reach revenue targets. Within those structures, they developed a way to assess how charges would affect customers, and their ability to pay for water, based on race, income and geography.

“It’s really helpful to have those tools,” said the MPC’s Williams, who added that they allow him to plug in information “and come up with different results given different scenarios.” That’s crucial, he said, because “there are a lot of moving parts.”

“The basic problem is a data problem,” Williams added. “We don’t have full information yet about the number of lead service lines in Illinois. We know there are at least 686,000 but there may be many more. And so one of the challenges that the students had to deal with was, in the context of all that uncertainty about how many lead service lines there are, how do you come up with a cost estimate?”

“There's also some uncertainty about how much each lead service line is going to cost to replace,” he said, with estimates ranging from $4,000 to $15,000. 

He credits insight and guidance from Worthington for the project’s success as does Policy Labs team member Marvin Slaughter, MPP’21, who said he was familiar with Illinois’ lead service line situation before starting the project but “didn’t truly understand the scope of the problem.”

“Our team,” he said, “struggled initially by thinking that we had to provide a single answer, like two plus two equals four. In practice, we learned that the world isn’t so black and white and instead shifted to providing ranges of possible solutions based upon well-developed assumptions and data that was available to us.”

Marvin Slaughter, MPP'21

Slaughter described his role on the project as “a sort of Swiss Army knife, where I originally started off doing the economic research that laid the foundation for the inputs of our model and by the conclusion of our Policy Lab I had worked on researching and fine-tuning deliverables for every component of our model besides our equity analysis.” 

“Sometimes,” he added, “that’s how teamwork develops, and learning to remain flexible throughout a project of this magnitude is an invaluable lesson.”

Unlike Illinois, Wisconsin is at an earlier stage in the process of establishing statewide lead service line replacement programs and policies. For the lab, students (who like the MPC team used publicly available data) developed a range of recommendations including an Excel tool that will assist communities in assessing water rate structures and exploring whether residential customer rate increases can cover some replacement costs.

Max Brown, MPP’21, was on the Wisconsin team and led work on creation of the user guide for the "Rate Calculator." It is, he said, “a brilliant and extremely complicated Excel sheet tool” created by team member John Loeffler.

Brown’s favorite part of the lab, he said, “was the payoff after our final presentation, hearing our clients say that our findings had changed the way they see the problem of lead lines and lead service line replacement in Wisconsin and that they would change how they address the problem because of these new insights.”

“The idea that someone somewhere may not get lead poisoning because the problem was addressed more impactfully because of our work on this project is immensely gratifying,” said Brown. While keeping his options open, Brown said this project made him more enthusiastic about possibly working after graduation in the areas of environmental justice and public health, areas, he said, “where financial constraints need to be overcome to avoid terrible human consequences.”

Such consequences are what make this year’s Common Read so hard to forget. 

“When I read the book,” Worthington said, “I was struck by the observation that we sadly see repeated instances of public officials making decisions that are penny wise and pound foolish.

“And the decision to switch the city of Flint’s water supply without conducting due diligence and without being quickly responsive to the problems that started to emerge makes me feel very uncomfortable.”

Brown shares that discomfort.

“Despite how proud I am of the work that I and my team did,” he said, “I want nothing more than everything we accomplished to be rendered irrelevant by a federal infrastructure or environmental bill with enough money in it to rip every last lead service line out of the ground and end this crisis once and for all.”