The Crusader Newspaper Group

Old and dangerous

By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader

The water was flowing, but the drain in the water fountain at Russell Square Park looked worn.

Time and neglect have discolored the walls around the drains, leaving heavy black rings. But the biggest problem lies at the base of the two-foot fountain. Old pipes that once were hidden behind the structure’s concrete skin are now exposed. Rusty and containing lead— a dangerous metal that contaminates the drinking water when the fountain is not on— for parents and park officials, that’s a big problem.

AN OLD WATER Fountain at Russell Square Park in South Chicago.

There are hundreds of old water fountains in Chicago, especially in parks on the South Side. Some are concrete while others are chrome. They sit near playgrounds, basketball courts, baseball fields and pools, and they pose a serious health hazard for children and families who want to quench their thirst on a hot day.

All summer, many of these old fountains run constantly, with the on/off button disabled.  That’s because these fountains had lead levels that were higher than safety limits established by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is 15 parts per billion. So for the past two months, park officials everywhere have let water in the fountains run 24/7 to flush out lead that comes from corroded pipes.

It’s a strategy that park officials say keeps the water clean and fountains safe. It also keeps park officials from spending money the district doesn’t have to replace the old water fountains.

With over 2,400 fountains throughout the parks across the city, it’s a war that’s putting a strain on park officials as they spend hours constantly testing fountains in hopes of finding reduced lead levels in water that’s safe enough to drink. It’s a meticulous process that requires attention to detail and accuracy. Human error or mistake could damage or end a life.

With so many fountains to test and document, there is concern as to whether engineers can physically and economically keep up with this demanding process, as more of the park district’s fountains age with corroded pipes seeping lead into the water.

With a tight budget in the nation’s second largest park district, options are few for a problem that threatens the lives of thousands of residents, especially children and women. The question is will the park district put water fountains out of service in the coming years or spend millions of dollars replacing corroded pipes or replacing the structures altogether.

Unknown 1Chicago Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly has been conservative in the past several years when it comes to spending. His $449.4 million budget for 2017 is nearly $9 million lower than the previous year. According to the park district’s budget report, the budget focuses primarily on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goal to invest in the city’s high-profile lakefront, river, and public green spaces.

There is also considerable resources being dedicated to building a $30 million golf course in South Shore that will be designed by Tiger Woods. Most of the money will come from private funds, a trend in the park district that’s advancing the interests of affluent residents.

The park district’s budget for 2018 will soon be up for public input, but so far there hasn’t been any talk of repairing or replacing the aging fountains.

That raises questions about the park district’s priorities when it comes to protecting the health of residents in neighborhoods where there are aging water fountains with lead contamination.

Lead is a metal that when consumed or exposed to can pose serious health risks to humans. A spokesperson for the EPA said “young children, infants, and fetuses are particularly vulnerable to lead. A dose of lead that would have little effect on an adult can have a significant effect on a child. In children, low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.”

In 2016, the park district tested the city’s 2,435 indoor and outdoor water fountains. According to an 87-page report, 43 percent of those fountains had elevated levels higher than the EPA standards.

As far as the outdoor water fountains, the Crusader counted 366 with high levels of lead. They are scattered among some 154 parks throughout Chicago. At 49 of those parks, all of the outdoor fountains had high lead levels and 21 of those parks were on the South Side, where thousands of children flock to attend summer camps.

At Avalon Park, 1215 E. 83rd Street, one water fountain had 1,800 parts per billion lead levels when the EPA limit was 15 parts per billion, according to tests results.

In Chatham at Russell Square Park, 3045 E. 83rd St., three of the park’s six water fountains had high levels of 17, 18 and 76 parts per billion.

Kevin Watson, a resident in the South Shore neighborhood, was late in learning about the high levels. Two weeks ago he learned about it after listening to a WBEZ report. He grew alarmed after he saw there was no sign warning residents about the high levels of lead at water fountains in Russell Square Park. So he put a pink florescent sign that read, “Danger Lead” on one of the fountains. Park officials removed it the next day.

Watson was unaware of the flushing protocols that were a joint effort by the park district, the Chicago Department of Water Management and the Illinois Department of Public Health to develop a plan to ensure clean water going forward.

“That’s crazy,” Watson said. “How are we supposed to know if this water is safe if they are not telling us anything?”

Running a fountain 24/7 is only a temporary fix.

Recent News

Scroll to Top