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I-Team: Many of Chicago's aging water tanks fail inspection

Old rooftop water towers dot the Chicago skyline showing signs of their age. After two recent accidents, the I-Team started looking into the tanks.
An I-Team exclusive: safety concerns about aging water tanks on top of Chicago buildings and what the city is doing to deal with the issue.

Old rooftop water towers dot the Chicago skyline showing signs of their age. After two recent accidents, the I-Team started looking into the tanks.

Records show many are in a state of disrepair. Building owners are ultimately responsible for keeping the structures safe. On Thursday, the city tells the I-Team about urgent actions being taken to have the tanks inspected immediately.

A 5,000 gallon tank fell from the Brewster Building in Lakeview last summer, injuring 3 people. About half of the approximately 170 tanks on Chicago rooftops are still in use, such as this one in River North that sprung a massive leak in February.

City records show both tanks failed inspection.

"It's a public safety issue and that's why it should be a concern," said David Corr, a professor of structural engineering at Northwestern University.

The I-Team spot checked two dozen other locations. According to the building department's online data warehouse, this water tower on top of the building at 1882 S. Normal in the Pilsen neighborhood failed its most recent inspection. The building owner declined our request for an on-camera interview but told us it is too expensive to repair or remove the tank.

Professor Corr says decades of exposure to extreme weather can deteriorate these structures and repairs are pricey.

"I think any repair of that nature would be a very labor intensive process so a lot of the expenses would be associated with getting a lot of the right people in there to do the repair and paying for the manual labor," said Prof. Corr.

Several other tanks we looked at also failed recent inspections including: 213 North Morgan, 1035 West Lake, 1747 West Carroll.

"There are really 2 concerns, the support structure that is keeping the tank stable and in place, and then what the weight of the tank may be doing to the building. 10:19 But the support structure itself, if that fails, you could start to see the tank itself dropping off the roof," said Prof. Corr.

"Our heightened sensitivity on this issue is because of the recent failures," said Chicago Department of Buildings Commissioner Felicia Davis.

So concerned is Davis that the city has recently started its own inspections of rooftop water tanks to identify emergency issues. So far, 60 tanks have been inspected. The owners of those 60 buildings are being compelled to provide additional documentation about their water towers.
"To hire a professional to actually do a more in-depth report and to ensure really that the structure is safe," said Davis. "We haven't found any that were an immediate danger otherwise we would have taken emergency action."

Under the current city ordinance, water tanks only have to be inspected every five years. A new ordinance will likely be introduced this summer requiring more frequent inspections both inside and outside the tanks.

"We will require every structure to submit a report immediately within a year to include the higher standard inspection to make sure that the property owner can attest to the full soundness of the structure," said Davis.

Under the soon-to-be proposed city ordinance, water tower inspections would be required every two years instead of every five.

Most building owners we contacted did not return our call, and those who did said they did not want to talk on camera.

The city says if owners don't fix their violations in a timely manner they can be fined. The city says if there is imminent danger to the public, the Department of Buildings will work with the owner to remove the tank.

Related Topics:
news I-Team Chicago - River North Chicago - Pilsen Chicago - Lakeview
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