Chicago residents file class-action suit against city for lead pipe contamination

CHICAGO, Feb. 18, 2016 -- (BUSINESS WIRE) -- Chicago residents have filed a class-action lawsuit against the city, claiming that it knowingly started construction projects that exponentially increased the risk of toxic levels of lead in residents’ tap water, and that the city failed to warn residents of the risks or provide accurate directions on how to reduce the risk of lead contamination.

The lawsuit, filed on Feb. 17, 2016 in the Circuit Court of Cook County Illinois, states that the city’s aging lead water pipes are disturbed by construction or street work, meter installation or replacement, or plumbing repairs – projects that disrupt the polyphosphate coating that protects the service lines and increases the risk of “alarming levels of lead” into nearby residents’ water supply. Nearly 80 percent of the properties in Chicago receive drinking water via outdated, brittle lead pipes that are cut and greatly disturbed by the city’s water and sewer main projects.

According to expert Marc Edwards, drinking Chicago tap water, particularly where the city has conducted a water main replacement project, is “like a game of Russian roulette.”

The lawsuit highlights the city’s lax and inaccurate information given to residents in light of lead contamination risks. Studies have shown that when lead service lines are disturbed, they can release lead for weeks, months or even years after the disturbance, yet the city of Chicago tells residents that running water for three to five minutes is an adequate measure to combat contamination from disturbed corrosion – but fails to even mention lead – according to the complaint.

The complaint states, “The buried warning the City did give residents fell far short of providing advice that would actually protect residents, according to leading experts in the field. One leading expert has even called the City’s actions ‘criminal.’”

“We believe the city of Chicago knew well the risks and dangers of toxic lead contamination associated with these construction projects but chose to turn a blind eye to its own, allowing this mounting problem to become a widespread public health issue across the city of Chicago,” said Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman. “The city has fully abandoned its duties to its residents. The city of Chicago has put the health and safety of hundreds of thousands of residents at risk by allowing alarming levels of lead into the water supply and failing to arm residents with any knowledge of how to avoid contamination.”

The suit seeks medical assistance for affected residents, including a fund to pay for medical monitoring to diagnose lead poisoning to make sure residents are made aware of the hazards and effects of contamination.

One of the suit’s named plaintiffs, Tatjana Blotkevic and her husband Yuriy Ropiy were devastated to learn that the city had failed to disclose the risks of lead contamination in their tap water, especially after Ropiy experienced unexplained health issues. According to attorneys, Ropiy experienced heart attack-like symptoms during and after the city conducted a construction project near their place of residence. Ropiy immediately went to the hospital for his ailments which included shortness of breath and fluctuating blood pressure, yet doctors said he was not experiencing a heart attack.

“We trusted the city,” Blotkevic said. “It’s the kind of thing you just assume – that your tap water is safe to drink and that your city has done its due diligence to prevent a health hazard like toxic levels of lead. As soon as I found out that the city was allowing this to happen, our family stopped drinking the water from our taps. We had no idea that drinking the water in our own home was putting us at risk for lead poisoning.”

“The people of Chicago deserve better, and the city needs to act,” she added.

Berman said, “The numbers don’t lie – the incidence of lead poisoning among Chicago children living in older homes is several hundred percent higher than children living in similar homes in other cities. It’s simply unacceptable that the city would act with such recklessness and negligence, and we hope to bring swift action to help these forgotten residents maintain a basic right – clean drinking water.”

The Numbers: Construction on Chicago’s Lead Pipes

The complaint states that Chicago’s public water system contains millions of lead pipe service lines throughout the city and that since 2008, the city of Chicago has been modernizing its water system, replacing water mains and pipes that date to the 1800s. It has conducted more than 1,600 water main and sewer replacement projects since Jan. 1, 2009 that directly affect the water supply to Chicago residents.

Chicago uses anti-corrosive coatings, but the anti-corrosion treatment can fail when pipes are disturbed by construction or street work, meter installation or replacement, or plumbing repairs, the suit states. This process regularly disturbs the lead service pipes supplying water to Chicago residents, who have never received accurate warnings or information about the risks of lead contamination. Moreover, the City only partially replaces the lead service lines, attaching them to copper pipes, according to the complaint. The contact between the copper and lead pipes can then cause galvanic corrosion, leading to the continued contamination of residents’ drinking water for years to come.

According to the firm’s investigation, residents received only one flyer when their water mains were replaced. This flyer, which currently fails to even mention lead, merely advises residents that running water for three to five minutes is an adequate precaution. According to the American Water Works Association, immediately following a lead service line replacement, cold water should be run for at least 30 minutes.

About Hagens Berman
Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP is a consumer-rights class-action law firm with offices in 10 cities. The firm has been named to the National Law Journal’s Plaintiffs’ Hot List eight times. More about the law firm and its successes can be found at www.hbsslaw.com.

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