South Side homeowners are up in arms over the city’s alleged failure to provide them with lead-free water, including one family being forced to drink tainted water because they cannot afford to pay for water filters.
Vircy Spight-Harris, a 6th Ward resident, and Marguerite Bien-Aime, a Chicago Public School teacher, are asking that the city remove the water meters they say are giving them water that is allegedly tainted with lead.
The women first called into WVON’s “On the Case” talk show produced and hosted by this writer on January 23rd, complaining about lead in their water. Spight-Harris said when she got home from Our Lady of Africa, formerly known as Holy Angels Church, she turned on the radio and heard Bien-Aime complaining about lead water. That is when she, too, called WVON’s “One the Case” show complaining about lead in her tap water.
“Lead is brain-damaging especially with the developmental years of a child,” said Bien-Aime.
When asked if she is drinking bottled water, Bien-Aime said, “No. We are drinking the water with the lead in it. We are drinking water from the faucet because I don’t have the money to buy the water filters. The water pitchers hold the water filters.
“When the city gave us three water filters, we use[d] that up quickly and the rest is on homeowners,” Bien-Aime said. “My parents are no longer interested in buying water filters. We have been drinking lead water for seven years. It’s like committing suicide,” she said.
Spight-Harris said she received an urgent call transitioning to a water meter, which would reduce the cost of her water bill and would be billed more frequently. She used to pay her estimated water bill every six months, now she is billed every two months at a higher cost. However, she said the city asked homeowners to convert to a water meter to get a more accurate cost. She was told to call 311, which placed the order for the meter conversion. She was told her water bill would be lower.
Two years later, Spight-Harris said the city said homeowners who had water meters placed in their homes “had a higher content of lead in that water, and her water bill is higher.”
After she called 911, the city sent her a box with bottles in it. She was instructed to run her tap water and place a sample of water in a bottle the city provided then put it in the box and mail it back to the city.
“There is a number you call to report that you have filled the bottles with tap water and someone from the city would pick them up,” Spight-Harris explained.
The city mailed her a huge box containing a huge pitcher with three or four water filters. “You had a meter. If you test the water, it’s supposed to be 006. Once those numbers change, it’s a sign that the filter is no more good,” she explained.
She and Bien-Aime must buy their own filters after the city provided them with three or four filters. Both women said Walmart had the cheapest filters, which cost about $40. “That is what I have been doing for over five years,” said Spight-Harris, “and it is not fair to place that financial burden on homeowners.
“I do not use tap water for drinking or cooking. I purchase bottled water to drink, and for cooking, if my filter has turned old and I do not have money to replace the filter, I go to the stores and buy gallons of water. I have to buy gallons of water to cook with,” Spight-Harris explained.
On May 6, 2021, there was a news report in the Chicago Sun-Times that warned Beverly residents to boil their water. “My daughter lives in the Beverly area.” Ironically, the next day when Spight-Harris got up to brush her teeth, she said the water did not look right and neither did the water in her kitchen.
When she called 311 and reported the tainted beige-colored water, she said the 311 operator treated her as if she had dementia. “The city only gave me three changeable filters,” said Spight-Harris, who said she cannot afford to keep buying water filters. “The city should pay for these water filter replacements,” she stated.
Alderman Roderick Sawyer (6th) stated he will talk to the water commissioner to see if removing the water meters is in the best interest of the homeowners. “I have to be sure if removing the water meters is the right decision because I am getting calls from people complaining about lead in the water and they don’t have water meters.”
However, Alderman Sawyer made it clear that he will do the right thing by the homeowners.
However, Bien-Aime—who has not taught school since the 2018- 2019 school year because of the pandemic—said, “It would help to remove the meters because the meters are made with lead material which is going into our water.
“They will have to get the pipefitters union members to replace the pipes because the water meters are soldered into the pipes, and they are leaking lead into the water. They need to replace the pipes,” Bien-Aime told the Chicago Crusader.
A certified teacher of history and social sciences, Bien-Aime said she took time off from teaching because she did not want to bring the virus home to her elderly parents. However, she is going back to teaching soon because the virus numbers are going down, and she vowed to continue to fight to get all meters removed.
“They are not just in the homes of Black people,” she said. “They are all over the city, and it is not just for us to be drinking tainted water. These water meters are like a cash cow to the city. Perhaps that is why the city is dragging its feet to remove them,” Bien-Aime said.
Ben-Aime went on to say the water meter conversion began under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot has halted that procedure. “Unfortunately, the decision to take the water meters off the water line has not been done. I want them to remove the water meter off the waterline…the pipe that brings water into the home. Take it out. It’s poisonous.”
Ben-Aime said her 85-year-old mother has called the city and 8thWard Alderman Michelle Harris to no avail, and now her mother and her 91-year-old father will not spend another dime on buying water filter replacements. They continue to drink the “tainted” tap water.
Chicago residents will have to depend on the benevolence of the aldermen and/or the mayor in getting their meters removed from their homes.
In 2020, the Illinois Supreme Court threw out a proposed class-action lawsuit by Chicago residents alleging the city failed to warn them of lead exposure in their drinking water and made it worse after replacing the water mains. The Court said the need for medical testing is not a cognizable injury in a negligence action.
In a 4-0 decision, the Illinois Supreme Court said that the residents “expressly conceded to the court that an increased risk of future harm— in this case, an increased risk of having lead in their water supplies, and therefore, an increased risk of having lead enter their bodies and of suffering lead poisoning—cannot alone be the basis of a damages claim.
“But without an increased risk of future harm, plaintiffs would have no basis to seek medical monitoring,” the Court stated.
Expressly, “the plaintiffs’ allegation that they require ‘diagnostic medical testing’ is simply another way of saying they have been subjected to an increased risk of harm,” the high court ruled.
“A plaintiff who suffers bodily harm caused by a negligent defendant may recover for an increased risk of future harm as an element of damages, but the plaintiff may not recover solely for the defendant’s creation of an increased risk of harm,” according to the Illinois Supreme Court ruling.