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Near North Resident Water Complaints Trace Back Over A Decade, Records Show

By Tatiana Walk-Morris | August 30, 2016 5:26am
 Water mains from Division Street & Astor Street and north to Schiller are being replaced. The original pipes were put in place in 1876.
Water mains from Division Street & Astor Street and north to Schiller are being replaced. The original pipes were put in place in 1876.
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DNAinfo/Tatiana Walk-Morris

GOLD COAST — After the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and the more recent findings of elevated lead levels in the drinking water of several Chicago Public Schools, Chicago residents are paying closer attention to the quality of their tap water. 

When 311 gets a call about water quality, it usually falls into one of two categories: a report of an issue, or a request for a testing kit to check for lead levels. The city didn't start sorting test requests into a separate category from water quality complaints until this past spring, so it's difficult to parse the data to look for trends over time in water quality reports, and how many relate to concerns about lead levels.

But as 311 call records show, some residents on Chicago's Near North Side and nearby neighborhoods have been complaining about their water quality for years.

According to records obtained by DNAinfo through a Freedom of Information Act request, 311 received 67 calls regarding complaints and water testing requests from residents within the 60610 ZIP code, which encompasses Gold Coast, Old Town and the the Near North Side, since September 2003.

Records show that 311 callers within the 60610 ZIP code reported a mildew, chlorine or moldy smell as well as a gray or brown discoloration. Other residents called 311 to request lead testing in their water as early as 2006.

Complaints of that ilk are not unusual in any neighborhood, said Gary Litherland, spokesman for the city’s Water Management Department. Such complaints are especially typical of older, single-family or two-flat homes constructed before 1986 in areas like Old Town, some of which have lead pipes, Litherland said.

Jessica Schwarz, a resident of Streeterville since 1998, said she became concerned about her water quality after learning about the Flint water crisis and was concerned for her young nephews, considering the effects lead has on developing children, she said.

Schwarz had a Brita filter, but, after doing extensive research on filters, replaced it with a system that removes more contaminants, a decision which she said resulted in even better-tasting water. She called 311 for a free lead test kit last week and is waiting for the results.

“Families lives are ruined, because the city was hiding and wasn’t responsible and wasn’t following the regulations,” Schwarz said of those impacted by the Flint crisis. “It’s becoming a bigger deal, and I would love to find out when they’re going to test the Chicago water.”

When the department receives a water lead test kit replacement request, that request takes a day or two to process and the kit is sent out to the requester, Litherland said. He said he attributes the recent testing requests to the growing awareness of recent water quality issues but doesn't see the recent requests as much of an uptick.

“It’s a very popular topic in the news right now, so folks are talking about it. That undoubtedly has something to do with the increased interest in getting their water tested,” Litherland said.

It's important that the testing instructions, which involve letting water sit idle for six hours, are followed carefully in order to make sure the results are consistent, Litherland said. Doing so can be an inconvenience for some, he said, adding that the city has sent out thousands of testing kits which haven't been returned.

“We have to have results that are usable,” Litherland said. “We want to assure people that their water is safe… To do that, they have to be accurate and precise when drawing the samples.”

The Safe Drinking Water Act requires lead-free pipes, plumbing fittings or fixtures, solders, or fluxes in the installation or repair of any public water system and any plumbing in a residential or non-residential facility providing water for human consumption after June 1986.

In May and June, a newsletter from Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) notified residents of the water main upgrade on Division Street and Astor Street from Schiller to Division to install 2,399 feet of new water mains. The original mains were installed in 1876.

Litherland said that if a caller complains about water quality concerns, like taste or smell, typically a water quality surveillance representative must contact the customer within the next business day to figure out the problem is.

Christian Ficara, Hopkins' chief of staff, said Hopkins' office had not received any water quality complaints from his constituents, some of whom live within the 60610 ZIP code in Gold Coast.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), whose ward partially covers the Gold Coast, and Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), whose ward includes the Near North Side, did not return calls for comment on whether residents in his ward had expressed any water quality concerns.

Chicago residents who want to have their water tested can call 311 for a free tap water testing kit or to report water quality issues. If residents calls 311 to report a water quality issue such as a strange water smell or taste, they will be contacted the following business day to have the issue resolved, Litherland said.

The results of a lead test are publicly available at ChicagoWaterQuality.org and are updated weekly.

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