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Class Claims Chicago Water Has Been Tainted With Lead for Years

CHICAGO (CN) - Chicago has been contaminating its drinking water with lead for years as it tried to fix its aging lead pipes, and it knew it, residents claim in a class action that may have more victims than the fiasco in Flint, Mich.

The three named plaintiffs claim that Chicago's attempts to patch its aging water distribution leached lead into the water supply from the corroding pipes.

Chicago has more lead pipe water lines than any other U.S. city - nearly 80 percent of Chicago properties receive their drinking water from lead pipes, according to lead plaintiff Tatjana Blotkevic's lawsuit in Cook County Chancery Court.

Flint's catastrophe was caused by switching water sources in a bungled attempt to save money. Chicago's was caused by work on the aging pipes, according to the complaint.

To reduce the danger of lead poisoning from corroding pipes, Chicago treats its water with blended polyphosphate, which creates a white coating on the interior of the water mains and household pipelines. But the anti-corrosion treatment can fail, especially when pipes are disturbed by water main replacement or plumbing repairs.

Any kind of work on the pipes can cause "alarming levels of lead to leach from services lines" into the water supply, according to the 24-page complaint. Attached as an exhibit are 58 pages containing more than 1,000 work sites and dates.

Chicago knew of this danger, but stepped up its efforts to modernize its water system in 2008 and has conducted more than 1,600 water main and sewer replacement projects since January 2009, the complaint states.

But the class claims the city did not warn residents about the risk of lead contamination in the water after the construction work.

The American Water Works Association recommends that a lead water line be flushed for 30 minutes after servicing, but the city instructs residents to flush the lines for only three to five minutes - and that instruction is buried in the middle of a handout sent to homeowners, according to the complaint.

"According to expert Marc Edwards, drinking the tap water in Chicago, particularly where the City has conducted a water main replacement project, is 'like a game of Russian roulette,'" the complaint states.

An Environmental Protection Agency study tested sites in Chicago where there had been a recent physical disturbance of the water lines, and all the samples exceeded the "lead action level:" the level at which a municipality is required to take steps to resolve the issue under federal guidelines.

"In other words, city projects have been contaminating residents' drinking water with lead and the city has been doing nothing to address the problem," the complaint states.

But the problem is almost surely worse than the reports suggest, the plaintiffs say. More than half of the properties tested by the Chicago Department of Water Management are owned by City Water Department employees or retirees, who largely live in neighborhoods with few cases of lead poisoning.

"This does raise significant concerns about a conflict of interest," said Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech scientist who helped expose the water crisis in Flint, in an interview with The Guardian newspaper.

Chicago is required to test only 50 sites every three years for lead and copper contamination.

"It has been a long-term mystery why the Chicago water department has never found problems with high lead in Chicago water, when outside entities, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Consumer Reports, have repeatedly done so," Edwards told the English newspaper.

Chicago is open about its practice of testing employees' water, and told The Guardian that it is easier to train city employees how to take samples than a randomly selected city resident. It claims the practice provides better long-term data because few city employees move out of the city.

Lead is a neurotoxin particularly for children, and can cause developmental disabilities, brain injury and can also harm adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has repeatedly warned there is no safe level of lead consumption. Some musicologists believe Beethoven's deafness may have been caused by lead, as the composer was partial to white wine, and lead was used as a sweetener in white wine in those days.

Blotkevic et al. seek class certification, establishment of a medical monitoring program and a trust fund to pay for testing for lead poisoning, and damages for negligent misrepresentation, negligence, and inverse condemnation.

They are represented by Elizabeth A. Fegan with Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro.

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